See Dick Run

by Jonathan Cohn | March 15, 2004

Even before Super Tuesday delivered a fatal blow to Senator John Edwards's presidential campaign, everybody from Tim Russert to Jesse Jackson was buzzing about the possibility that Edwards might become Senator John Kerry's running mate, giving the Democrats a "dream ticket" for 2004. And, while a lot of this was the usual Washington chatter, the idea of a Kerry- Edwards pairing has clearly taken root beyond the Beltway. In the New Hampshire primary, scores of voters who backed Kerry reportedly wrote in Edwards as a vice-presidential choice. In a recent CNN/Time magazine poll, 71 percent of Democrats called the idea of a Kerry-Edwards ticket a "good idea." Even Jay Leno has taken note, teasing Edwards during a recent "Tonight Show" appearance about running for the vice presidency.But reports suggest Kerry and his advisers are far from sold on Edwards. That may be a good thing. As compelling as Edwards might have been as the Democratic presidential nominee, his virtues as a running mate are more questionable. In fact, if any of Kerry's vanquished rivals belong on the ticket with him, it may be the one who never made it out of Iowa: Representative Richard Gephardt. The case for Edwards as veep typically begins with geography: Because Edwards is from North Carolina, the theory goes, he would put that state in play while making Kerry competitive in other Southern states that would otherwise shun a Massachusetts liberal. As South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn said recently, "With a Kerry-Edwards ticket, we can sweep this nation and bring the South along with it." But it's hardly clear that Edwards is really that popular in Dixie. A recent story by Knight-Ridder's Anna Griffin suggested that many North Carolina Democrats resent Edwards's decision to abandon his Senate seat after just one term. ("A lot of folks feel like maybe he should have stayed in the Senate longer," one local Democrat told Griffin.) And, as Kerry himself was recently overheard saying, most polls show Edwards losing North Carolina to President Bush in a head-to-head matchup. If Edwards can't reliably beat Bush at the top of the ticket, how could he tip the state if he were merely the vice-presidential nominee? Fortunately for Kerry, winning the general election doesn't require winning North Carolina--or, for that matter, any Southern state. Assuming Kerry can hold every state Al Gore won in 2000, he need only take one or two more to win a majority in the electoral college. And, while it'd certainly be nice to win once-competitive Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, or Tennessee, Democratic prospects are brighter in the industrial Midwest, Gephardt's home base. Unlike Edwards, who has only been in politics for six years, Gephardt's 30-year tenure as a St. Louis representative suggests he enjoys real political strength in his home state, Missouri. (Both the state's governor and the head of its Democratic Party are former Gephardt advisers.) Even more important, because Gephardt has been such an unfailingly loyal ally to the labor movement over his career--among other things, he led the fights against NAFTA and for a higher minimum wage during the 1990s--he could be helpful in labor-friendly states like West Virginia and Ohio, considered by some the most crucial swing state of 2004. (Bush narrowly won Ohio in 2000, but the state has been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, and its 20 electoral votes may be ripe for Democratic picking.) Gephardt's somewhat more conservative positions on social issues like abortion (Gephardt is largely pro-choice but voted for the so-called partial- birth ban last year) may also play well in the Midwest. "It's impossible to know for sure," says the Century Foundation's Ruy Teixeira, who has literally written the book on working-class Democrats, but "he seems like he projects an air of cultural stolidity that would be reassuring to those voters." (Gephardt's near-religious defense of Medicare and Social Security could help in another key state: Florida.) Having said all that, Edwards's potential strength is clearly as much personal as geographical. Thanks in part to his compelling, rags-to-riches biography, he connects with middle- and working-class voters more easily than the patrician Kerry. Even as Kerry was winning primary after primary, exit polls showed that voters believed Edwards was the candidate who most cared about them and best understood their concerns. But Gephardt, too, has a good personal story. Like Edwards, he's the son of working-class parents; like Edwards, he worked his way through college and law school. And, when it comes to communicating, Gephardt knows how to speak the language of blue-collar America. "It's not just biography," says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, another expert on working-class voters. "It's also body language, the words you use, whether you're the real article. And Gephardt is the real article." Edward's seemingly boundless energy has reminded many observers of another successful Democratic pairing: Bill Clinton's 1992 selection of an equally youthful Al Gore (at that time, Gore had yet to be caricatured as tired and wooden). But selecting Gore made sense because Clinton was youthful and enthusiastic, too. Kerry isn't, and putting Edwards on the ticket might just emphasize that fact. By contrast, Gephardt's best political asset may be his image as a stable, veteran leader--a quality Kerry shares. In other words, while putting Edwards on the ticket could remind them of what's wrong with Kerry, putting Gephardt on the ticket could remind them of what's right with him. Moreover, Gephardt might do a better job of reminding voters of what's wrong with Bush. While there's no question that Edwards is an unusually gifted speaker, during the primaries he seemed reluctant to attack in the way vice- presidential candidates must. You can't say that about Gephardt, who proved his mettle as a Democratic partisan during the fight against Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. Granted, just as Gephardt's presence would highlight certain Kerry strengths, it might also reinforce certain weaknesses. On bread-and-butter issues, for example, Gephardt has frequently been an unreconstructed liberal. At the very least, Gephardt's calls for repealing the entire Bush tax cut would make it easier for the GOP to demagogue the issue, despite Kerry's ever-so-careful locutions on the matter. And, with such a long legislative career, Gephardt has changed his mind more than a few times, most conspicuously on abortion. (Gephardt began his career as a pro-lifer.) It was a Michael Dukakis ad about flip-flops that helped kill Gephardt's promising presidential candidacy in 1988, and, in the years since, articles about Gephardt reinventions have become a veritable rite of passage among Washington journalists. (I wrote one myself three years ago.) Picking up where he left off in 2000, when running against Gore, Bush has already begun attacking Kerry as a serial flip-flopper who will say anything to get elected. Gephardt's presence on the ticket certainly won't diminish that appearance and could very well enhance it. But any potential running mate has political liabilities, and the good thing about Gephardt's is that they're well-established. Gephardt has been on the front lines of congressional battles for the better part of three decades, and he has endured the scrutiny of two presidential campaigns. If there were some devastating political weapon against him out there--whether it be a personal scandal or a particularly unappealing set of votes--Republicans would have deployed it long ago. Edwards, on the other hand, remains a largely untested commodity. He has had to suffer negative political attacks just once, when he ran for the Senate in 1998. Because he kept his campaign so positive this season and never emerged as the front-runner, the media never scoured his past the way it did Kerry's. Nor have the voters rendered anything close to a definitive verdict on some of Edwards's more obvious liabilities, like his lack of governing experience. Among other things, it's far from clear that the youthful Edwards has the stature to share a stage with Dick Cheney in a debate over foreign policy. Voters may find Gephardt a bit weathered, but, for that same reason, he probably meets the public's definition of a would-be commander- in-chief. But the best reason to consider Gephardt seriously may simply be that he'd make a better vice president. A successful vice president can help an administration in many ways: By offering political advice, helping push legislation through Congress, acting as a disciplined spokesman, and managing relations with party interest groups (both to rally support and, when necessary, to provide cover for the president when he needs to defy them). It's Cheney's skill at these things that has made him such a force in the Bush White House. And, in all these respects, Gephardt's experience as a House leader and his long-standing relationships with Democratic interest groups would make him a better choice than the relative neophyte Edwards. Should Gephardt have to assume the presidency because Kerry could no longer serve, the veteran representative would be a safe, responsible choice to manage the country as it wages the war on terrorism. Edwards might well be up for that job, too. But, again, given his relative lack of experience in office, it's hard to be sure. None of this is to say Gephardt is clearly Kerry's best choice. There are good arguments in favor of other prominent Democrats, such as Evan Bayh, Bob Graham, and Bill Richardson, not to mention such (relatively) less well-known officials as Virginia Governor Mark Warner. But the fact that Kerry and Gephardt are battle-tested--both politically and, in Kerry's case, literally-- would make them a formidable team. It's more difficult to say the same about Kerry and Edwards. AUTHOR'S UPDATE: An Edwards supporter just e-mailed to say I got it wrong when I suggested North Carolina voters resented Edwards's running for president after just one term in the Senate. It's a fair complaint. In contrast to the anecdotal evidence I cited, a Raleigh News and Observer survey of North Carolina voters in January showed that 55 percent supported Edwards's presidential run--up from 39 percent a year before. The supporter also points to a recent survey showing Edwards beating Bush in a one-on-one matchup. That's also true, but not convincing. As I wrote, previous polls consistently showed Edwards losing head-to-head. That's a big reason why I am skeptical that he can bring North Carolina, let alone other Southern states, into the Democratic column--particularly if he's merely Kerry's running mate.

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