Dick Gephardt's New Clothes

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER Dick Gephardt's vote against the Clinton/Gore budget may have titillated the beltway punditocracy, but there is less to his performance than meets the eye. For one thing, Gephardt's opposition to this budget came at the last minute--far too late to have the slightest influence on the iniquitous deal Clinton cooked up with Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich. For another, Gephardt's ploy was strictly a rhetorical one--he made no effort to use his considerable suasive powers as the Democrats' boss in the House to crystallize a pro-people, anti-corporate-welfare bloc of his members to join with him.

The outlines of this budget deal were clear for months, and a real political leader would have gone to the country and attempted to mobilize public opinion against its soak-the-poor, tax-breaks-for-the-rich ethic. Gephardt's 11th-hour decision to stand against it had more to do with his desire to position himself as the Anti-Gore for the year 2000 than it did with principle.

Conservatives are having great fun pointing out that Gephardt's conversion is of recent vintage. As Rich Lowry recently recalled in the National Review, "When he won a congressional seat in 1976, it was as a pro-life Democrat willing to buck his party's national leadership on economics and defense. He worked with David Stockman to defeat President Carter's health-care price controls, and he voted for Reagan's 1981 tax cut. He opposed minimum-wage increases, the United Auto Workers' domestic-content bill, federal funding for community mental health centers and battered-women's shelters, and the creation of an independent consumer-protection agency. He voted for both the MX missile and B-1 bomber."

Pro-Clinton liberals, too, find Gephardt's opportunism an easy target. In The New Republic--the house organ of the pro-Gore Democrats, whose wealthy owner/editor, Marty Peretz, is a longtime Gore adviser and speechwriter--Gephardt was savaged last week as resembling "an earthling whose body has been taken over by space aliens. One keeps expecting him to reach under his chin and peel back that immobile, monochromatic, oddly smooth face to reveal the lizard beneath."

Gephardt's 1988 presidential campaign was marked by the most vulgar sort of demagogy: a xenophobic Japan-bashing whose accents were borderline racist. The way in which Gephardt positioned himself as the enemy of the Yellow Peril back then makes something of a mockery out of the Missouri Democrat's other attempt to distinguish himself from Gore, by opposing Most Favored Nation trading status for China. This is a stance which, however laudable, required no political courage--there is no pro-slave labor constituency in this country outside of corporate boardrooms. And one may be forgiven for suspecting that Gephardt's sudden concern for China's indentured workers and his criticism of the butchers of Beijing is simply designed to take advantage of the fact that Gore is neck-deep in the scandal over Chinese campaign contributions to the Democrats. Footage of Gore at that California Buddhist temple that gave him so much cash (laundered money, apparently), coupled with shots of him shaking hands with Jiang Jimin, will make a heck of a negative spot for the primaries.

There is a growing resentment against Gephardt on the part of House Democrats, who complain that their putative leader is devoting more time to his presidential bid than he is to the 1998 midterm Congressional elections, when the party in power in the White House historically always loses seats. With Clinton/Gore's hog-everything re-election campaign last year having left the Democratic National Committee some $16 million in debt and slashing its staff to the point of impotence, it's up to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to mount the effort to stave off the expected losses. But Gephardt is too busy crisscrossing-crossing Iowa and New Hampshire and taking meetings with his presidential campaign consultant, Bob Shrum, and his pollster, Stan Greenberg, to pay attention to the needs of his own troops.

Gephardt's 2000 candidacy is predicated on the assumption that he will be labor's candidate. But if the unions go with Gephardt, they'll be embracing one of Congress's most greedy PAC-men: Last time out, Gephardt raked in a personal campaign war chest of nearly $3 million for an ultrasafe seat, one that his Republican opponent spent only $28,000 to contest.

For a genuine populist to oppose the Clinton-Gore corporate agenda, we will have to look elsewhere.

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