Gephardt Seeks to Trade on Substance Rather Than Style

Posted July 25, 2003 at 1:11pm

While some observers focus on Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) surprisingly weak fundraising numbers and even go so far as to wonder whether the former Democratic leader will be long for the presidential race, Gephardt has gone to his ace in the hole to solidify his position in the top tier of candidates. He’s returned to the issue of trade. [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s a smart move. The question, however, is whether it will produce the desired results.

By attacking Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, Gephardt reinforces the idea that Kerry and Dean are coming from the same ideological corner and competing for the same voters.

Gephardt’s efforts to lump the two New Englanders together, if successful, could ultimately encourage Kerry and Dean to turn their guns on each other. If that happens, it can only help Gephardt.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s recent speech decrying the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country and criticizing Gephardt’s trade stance forced a quick response from the Missouri Congressman. Again, Gephardt was protecting his turf, and again he was distinguishing himself from another Democratic contender.

Gephardt needs to rally organized labor behind his candidacy, bringing rank-and-file union members (not just union leaders) to his cause and shaking a few dollars from labor’s pockets. Talking about “fair trade” is a good way of doing that.

With Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) candidacy still grounded and the three other most serious candidates more on the “free” than “fair” side of the trade debate, Gephardt is hoping the one major policy difference that divides the Democratic field will be enough to boost him to the party’s nomination.

The problem for the Missouri Democrat is that the nomination seems more likely to be decided by style and résumé rather than substance.

While the war in Iraq divides the Democratic contenders, and both the Democratic Leadership Council and the AFL-CIO see the party as poised to choose between clear paths, the candidates don’t seem to be waging an ideological war.

All of the Democratic presidential contenders talk about lessening America’s reliance on fossil fuels and the importance of renewable energy. All bash President Bush’s performance on foreign policy. All complain that the president’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative has been underfunded and is flawed. All criticize the Bush tax cuts.

On issue after issue, all of the Democrats agree that the president’s performance has been weak or embarrassing and that they could do better.

Even health care isn’t likely to be a defining issue in the Democratic race. Gephardt talks often and passionately about the subject, and he scored points by coming out first with a plan, but now almost everyone has a health care proposal on the table. While the candidates argue over whose is better, most voters won’t make their decisions on the basis of the differences among the proposals.

Dean’s early and consistent criticism of the war in Iraq made him attractive to some, but the former governor’s appeal is based primarily on his combativeness and insurgency or, in other words, his style.

He’s the guy who is telling it like it is. He’s the guy who will stick it to Bush. He’s the guy who won’t budge from principle. And maybe he can bring new people to the polls to boost his party’s prospects.

Kerry’s appeal is also mostly about image and his campaign’s technical prowess. For most voters, the Massachusetts Senator has charisma and a presidential “look.”

It’s the same for Edwards, Lieberman and Florida Sen. Bob Graham. They are running on their records, their values and their commitment to a broad Democratic agenda. But more than anything else, they are selling their unique styles.

If the Democrats choose their nominee primarily on that criteria, Gephardt is in trouble.

Although political reporters seem to agree that the Congressman has become an accomplished speaker and broken out of the mold of House Democratic leader, he’s still the same veteran politician who first ran for president 15 years ago.

Gephardt has done a lot right to demonstrate a boldness and passion that he supposedly lacked when he was his party’s leader in the House of Representatives. But his difficulty attracting individual contributions during the first six months of 2003 raises questions about whether he will be able to excite caucus attendees and primary voters.

The trade issue could give Gephardt just the wedge he needs to distinguish himself from other top-tier candidates and to mobilize his union supporters. But he’ll likely need more than that to win the nomination and the White House. He’ll need to sell himself.