WASHINGTON--``I never look back," says Rep. Dick Gephardt, not speaking under oath. Were he the brooding sort--his preternaturally unlined face suggests that his 61 years have not been roiled by inner turmoils--he could torment himself about several close calls.
Suppose he had had more money going into 1988's Super Tuesday primaries, when a governor's--Michael Dukakis'--superior fund-raising advantages prevailed. Suppose he had chosen to seek the nomination to run in 1992 against President Bush, who had such stratospheric post-Gulf War public approval at the time that Gephardt--and Al Gore, Bill Bradley and others--decided against running. Hence Bill Clinton faced a depleted field. Suppose Democrats had won five more seats in 2000--a shift of just 5,493 votes in five districts would have sufficed--and Gephardt had become speaker of the House.
Suppose Democrats this year get the six seats they now need for a majority. Then Speaker Gephardt, having finally shinnied to the top of the greasy poll of House politics (he became majority leader in 1989), will have to make two difficult decisions. Should he run for president? If he does, can he simultaneously run both the House and a presidential campaign, or must he resign the speakership?
He has been here and there on the political spectrum since being elected to Congress in 1976. When he arrived, he was against abortion. He was the first chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, created in 1985 to pull the party toward the center. But he ran in 1988 as a protectionist populist, and often has been the voice of labor.
However, in a speech last week to the DLC--a speech notable for strategic silences, some of them puzzling--Gephardt, whose St. Louis district is about 100 miles from America's population center, staked out the political center. He leapfrogged to the right of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who a month ago seemed to want, but to flinch from advocating, repeal of enacted tax cuts.
Gephardt praised Daschle's ``principled address," but disdained its principle, saying: ``We shouldn't be reconsidering tax cuts in the middle of a recession." In 40 minutes Gephardt made almost no mention of medical care, an issue Democrats must exploit if, as seems likely, the economy is far past the middle of the recession. In fact, given Wednesday's Commerce Department announcement that the economy resumed growing in the fourth quarter of 2001, the recession may be over.
Of Gephardt's four main aspirations, one is especially interesting post-Enron (making the pension system ``truly universal and portable"), one is classic social democracy (``staking each child with $500 through a refundable tax credit"), one is banal (``an economic growth summit") and one is chimeric--(``making America energy self-sufficient").
He would achieve the latter without drilling for oil anywhere that annoys environmentalists, and without annoying almost everyone else by mandating more fuel-efficient automobiles. Rather, he proposes ``an Apollo project" to expand various new technologies, such as ``hybrid" and ``fuel cell" cars.
The Democratic Party, characteristically oblivious to the fact that most improvements make matters worse, has given state parties permission to hold primaries as soon as Iowa and New Hampshire have had their fun--by Feb. 3, 2004. So the Democratic nominee may be known two years from this Sunday. Accelerating the process favors candidates who are well-known, and well-regarded by those who dispense organized labor's money and manpower. And this is not the only way the 2004 process might favor Gephardt.
Iowa's role in the process is unassailable, but anomalous. Its population is 94 percent white (New Hampshire's is 96 percent) so it may not be quite the place for the Democratic Party, which is exquisitely sensitive about racial numerology, to begin selecting its nominee. But Gephardt should like the anomaly: In 1988 he won the Iowa caucuses.
He won with 31 percent of the vote, ahead of another legislator from a state contiguous to Iowa. Illinois Sen. Paul Simon got 27 percent, so the ``contiguousness vote" was 58 percent. If Gephardt runs again in 2004 he probably will find himself competing against another such legislator--South Dakota's Daschle.
If Gephardt runs, he would be the first person whose second attempt for a nomination came 16 years after his first. (Another such person could be Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, also a candidate from the Class of 1988.) Gephardt has the patience requisite for presidential politics, a light ideological ballast conducive to nimbleness, a mechanic's familiarity with the nuts and bolts of campaigns and the experience of having been around the track before.
If he is speaker of the House, deciding to run might be difficult. If he is not, it should be easy.