When Dick Gephardt ran for president in 1988, the Missouri Democrat's 15 minutes of fame began in his neighboring state of Iowa, where he topped the field in the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Despite spending 110 days in the state and moving his mother into a garden apartment in Des Moines, his campaign had languished by the fall of '87. In January of 1988 it was re-ignited with one ad suggesting that a Korean-made Hyundai would cost $48,000 if Korea's tariffs were imposed in the United States.
Last Thursday, almost 14 years to the day, Gephardt roused the crowd at the Democratic Leadership Council with another impassioned cry – this time for hybrid cars. His rather more prosaic version of John F. Kennedy's promise to send an American to the moon was to shoot to have a majority of cars in American showrooms be hybrids by 2020.
You have to wonder what it is about cars that gets this guy so stirred up.
Gephardt's speech, a 14-page policy analysis which many called "Clintonesque," and which his staff billed as "visionary," was the second of three high-profile speeches the House minority leader is giving over a 10-day period.
The first, on Jan. 19, was a red-meat partisan speech to the Democratic National Committee in which he called remarks by White House aide Karl Rove to the Republican National Committee "shameful" for allegedly politicizing the war. Gephardt also blamed the recession not just on Sept. 11, but on George W. Bush, and he accused the Bush administration of not having the right values.
Gephardt's third big speech will come Tuesday night when he gives the official Democratic response to the president's State of the Union address before a national television audience. In the meantime, Gephardt has been making the rounds of the weekend talk shows and his aides have that "presidential look" in their eyes.
Despite Gephardt's seniority in the Democratic leadership, it has been Sen. Tom Daschle who has become the most recognized Democratic leader in the past few months. Daschle's ascendancy to the status of Senate majority leader last June, his prominence in the anthrax hysteria following the arrival of a tainted letter in his office, and his savvy in using the media have catapulted the South Dakotan to the top of the Democratic heap over Gephardt, as well as the MIA Al Gore.
There's a bit of sibling rivalry right now between the Gephardt and Daschle camps. Gephardt's aides were eager to remind reporters of the confusion Daschle caused about tax cuts in his big speech on Jan. 4, and to make clear that Gephardt's speech at the DLC wouldn't be a dry budget analysis but one of ideas and vision.
The speech – which was quite Clintonesque, ionly in its length – covered the map from information technology to pension reform. But it was the audience that showed Gephardt's real strength and reminded us why, after so many false starts, Democratic operatives still get those presidential yearnings about him.
In recent years Gephardt has been seen as organized labor's guy, but in his early years he was a true moderate and one of the founders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Front and center at Thursday's speech was John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO and no friend of the DLC, which was founded in part to cut the clout of labor inside the Democratic Party.
Also in the audience were Terry McAuliffe, now chairman of the DNC (but once a Gephardt staffer who included Gephardt as a member of his wedding party); Clinton aides John Podesta and Harold Ickes; and Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile and press spokesman Kiki McLean. Brazile and McLean, known to many through their Gore connections, were on Gephardt's team in that 1988 White House run.
Gephardt emerged from the '88 campaign as a populist, but in fact he is an institutional Democratic who has polished his skills as a conciliator and legislator over the years. That is both his strength and weakness. He is an extraordinarily patient man, a good listener and a cautious politician.
In 1991, when the gang of consultants and pollsters were sure he'd pick up the pieces of '88 and run again, he decided against it. At the 1996 convention, the buzz was that Al Gore was bending over backwards to counter Gephardt's head start with party stalwarts and labor, but by '99 Gephardt decided once again to stay put and hope that the Democrats would take over the House.
In his massive, political cum psycho-babble book, "What It Takes," Richard Ben Cramer describes Gephardt as a driven and methodical man who believes in the system and his own ability to figure out how to make it work to solve problems. The ultimate way for Gephardt to do that in the '80s was to get into the Oval Office and set the agenda. Now, at the age of 60, he's still methodically working the system, but often that approach makes him seem tedious and unexciting in an age of hyped media and hot personalities.
Gephardt is pulling his punches about another run for the White House, claiming that all he's thinking about is 2002 and the possibility of that House speakership. But the advisers are circling, and the gleam in their eyes is back. One thing is for sure, Gephardt has a jump on the others for people who want a steady, solid and hardworking guy. But the question remains: Is it his fight too?
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A veteran of the Washington scene, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch provides an inside look at the issues and personalities shaping the political dialogue in the nation's capital and around the country.