Gephardt Era Comes to Close

Posted January 20, 2004 at 6:26pm

There was a time when it seemed Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), known to friends as an eternal optimist, would always be the last man to throw in the towel.

But even the laconic Midwesterner, who had weathered every burden of setback or strife in a nearly 30-year career in national politics, could not overcome the one force more powerful than political will: a fourth-place finish in Iowa.

“I’m withdrawing as a candidate [for president] and returning to private life, after a long time in the warm light of public service,” Gephardt told supporters Tuesday in St. Louis.

Gephardt’s rise through the Democratic leadership coincided with one of the most turbulent periods in the party’s history — a time when a Speaker and a Whip were forced to resign, a top committee chairman faced indictment and the Democrats lost the House for the first time in 40 years.

It was in the wake of the 1994 debacle that Gephardt took the helm of the Caucus. And over time, there emerged inside the Caucus a strongly held view that Gephardt was perhaps the only Member who could reunify the party and lead it back to the majority.

“He really has a unique ability to listen to everyone — unendingly — and then to weld it all together into a coherent whole,” Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said.

This became a vital skill after the 1994 defeat. The Caucus was beset with recrimination, with fingers pointing in every direction. “We could have seen the party splinter into a million different pieces at that point,” one senior Democratic insider said, reflecting on the aftermath of the 1994 elections.

Gephardt struggled to hold party switches to a minimum among conservatives, who were seething over their treatment under the previous leadership. He also struggled to keep people from retiring, even as Members were being removed from committees in order to meet the party’s new allotment of seats. Payrolls had to be slashed, meaning that Members had to fire aides.

“It was an incredibly difficult time, just to deal with the cards he was dealt,” said one former senior Gephardt aide. The leader’s response was to ensure that every Member had a chance to say his or her piece. “There were whole sessions where people just dumped on the leadership.”

But Gephardt’s methods inspired trust. By 1998, the leader had seized control of virtually every aspect of the party’s political and policy apparatus in Congress. He reined in the party’s formidable ranking members, concentrating power over the party’s agenda in the leader’s suite, and became de facto chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Still, Gephardt kept a light touch. His practice of consulting thoroughly with the Caucus — sometimes Member by Member — before making decisions won raves. It also produced results: Democrats gradually adapted to a system of compromise that enabled them to hold together on votes.

But there was a downside to this level of control. Given his power, Gephardt was often called upon to make decisions — on committee assignments, for instance — that would essentially determine who would succeed and who would not.

Minority status kept the pressure on, and eventually Gephardt was promising slots on the top committees — Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce — that would be impossible to provide unless Democrats could win back control of the House.

Often, Gephardt found other ways around the problem, such as by creating special “task forces” and other groups that could be chaired by Members who had been passed over for committee seats.

Gephardt confidants suggest that he always has had an innate impulse to broaden the circle of input. “It is a partnership with Gephardt,” said longtime adviser Michael Wessel, who co-authored Gephardt’s 1999 autobiography.

Wessel remembered accompanying Gephardt to a speech he gave to about 2,000 people. As the lawmaker was wrapping up, he turned to Wessel, who was standing to the side, and said, “Would you add anything?”

By all accounts, Gephardt was distraught when he learned, during a three-hour meeting in 1998, that many women in the Caucus felt they were being excluded. He responded by creating a new position in leadership for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who had just lost a bid for the Caucus chairmanship.

Gephardt later formed a special “leadership council” comprised of delegates from each of the party’s powerful ethnic and ideological groups as a means of broadening the range of involvement in leadership. His afternoon leadership meetings while Congress was in session could include as many as 50 Members and, appropriately, the horde came to be known as the “big leadership.”

The “small leadership,” which met less often, consisted mostly of Members elected to leadership spots.

Gephardt has said that his greatest regret from his time in Congress was his decision to vote for President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. He has said the work he put into passing President Bill Clinton’s economic stimulus package in 1993 represented his greatest triumph.

But it was Clinton’s impeachment, in 1998, that led to perhaps Gephardt’s defining moment as leader. As the House closed in on its vote, Gephardt went to the well of the House to decry what he called the “politics of personal destruction” — a coinage that was to become a rallying point for Members and others across the country who were opposed to the impeachment.

The Speakership repeatedly eluded him. What would have been Gephardt’s first opportunity to seize the House’s top job came in 1994, when then-Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.) lost his bid for re-election. Unfortunately for Gephardt — and for the Democrats — Foley’s exit coincided with the electoral debacle that swept the GOP into power.

Gephardt’s remaining years in the House were transformed into a struggle to regain control of the chamber. Joined by Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), his longtime ally, Gephardt took control of the party’s demoralized campaign apparatus and began to rebuild.

In the coming years, Gephardt was to vastly outraise his Democratic colleagues in the House, raking in tens of millions of dollars. The success was due in large part to Gephardt’s ability to convince a skeptical donor community that the party had the will and the message to triumph against the odds.

Democrats never came closer than five seats of the majority. And the party’s climb was abruptly halted in 2002, when House Republicans, benefiting from favorable redistricting and aggressive campaigning by President Bush, defied history by actually gaining seats in the off-year election.

Gephardt announced his decision to step down from leadership only a few days later.

Like his leadership role inside the Caucus, Gephardt’s barely obscured presidential aspirations proved to be both a boon and a curse.

The anticipation of another Gephardt bid ensured that the lawmaker, while situated in the House, was nonetheless able to maintain a national political network, attract blue-chip staff and hold the attention of the national media.

A signature moment came in 1997 at Harvard, where Gephardt called for a “new progressivism.” The speech, in which the lawmaker railed against welfare reform and efforts to promote free trade, was widely interpreted as an attack on the “third way” moderation of the Clinton presidency — and an implicit challenge to would-be presidential rival Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president.

“We need a Democratic Party where principles trump tactics,” Gephardt said in the speech. “We need a Democratic Party that is a movement for change, and not a money machine.”

Ironically perhaps, Gephardt was to see many of the themes of that address adopted subsequently by Gore when he sought the presidency in 2000. Gephardt had bowed out of that contest, citing an imperative to stay and finish the job after gains made by the House Democrats in the 1998 elections.

(Interestingly, Gephardt confidants have said that he rued his decision not to seek the presidency again in 1992, four years after his first bid. According to these sources, Gephardt believed he could win the party’s nomination, but saw no way to beat then-President George H.W. Bush nationally. Clinton ultimately showed how it could be done.)

Gephardt’s national prominence came at a price. In the last years of his tenure as leader, Gephardt consistently faced questions about the motives behind positions he had taken.

Many Democratic strategists and traditional Democratic constituencies, such as organized labor and environmental groups, were dismayed by Gephardt’s strenuous efforts to pass changes to the campaign finance laws in 2002 — a successful effort that, in consequence, has severely undercut the party’s fundraising.

But Gephardt was never subjected to greater questioning by Members than when he linked up with President Bush to craft the Iraq war resolution in October 2002.

The move ensured passage of the measure. And while it may have eventually aided Gephardt in his bid to unseat Bush, it also led many in the voluble anti-war faction of the Caucus to feel they had been betrayed.

In time, many of these Members passed over Gephardt to endorse other presidential candidates, as did Members who had felt slighted by decisions Gephardt made in managing the Caucus.

In announcing his decision to leave the presidential race Tuesday, Gephardt said he had not given any thought to his plans for his future beyond the next session of Congress, which will be his last. It’s an apprehension that’s not shared by all of his supporters.

“If I were running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, I would be talking to [Gephardt] in a day or two,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said.