With Dick Gephardt in Iowa.

With Dick Gephardt in Iowa.

With Dick Gephardt in Iowa.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 30 2003 10:16 PM

See Dick Run

The media conspiracy descends on Gephardt in Iowa.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa—Dean season! Gephardt season! Dean season! Gephardt season! If any lingering debate remained over which presidential candidate is currently enjoying his media moment, my two days with Dick Gephardt settled it. The 20 national reporters who follow Gephardt for all or part of his campaign swing from Des Moines to Sioux City are the latest sign that not only have the leaves turned in late October, but so have the media.

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I came along to witness firsthand the evidence for something I wrote earlier this month after the Phoenix debate, that Gephardt's hard-nosed and well-organized Iowa campaign presents, at the moment, the biggest obstacle to President Dean (or, to be fairer, Democratic Nominee Dean). But I missed the media conspiracy memo that told everyone else to show up, too. During Gephardt's weekend swing in Iowa two days before, only three national reporters trailed the candidate. But now, David Brooks is here. So are Mara Liasson of NPR and Carl Cameron of Fox News. Throw in reporters from ABC, MSNBC, Knight Ridder, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, and the New York Times. (Counting Brooks, on Wednesday there are two New York Times writers following Gephardt.) Just for the sake of overkill, there are reporters from the British press and from Japanese television along for the ride. At one event in Pocahontas, Iowa—a town with an absolutely gigantic statue of the Indian princess outside her teepee welcoming visitors from the highway—the number of journalists nearly matches the number of prospective caucus-goers.

The Gephardt campaign pushes its slow-and-steady-wins-the-race angle (or is it a plea for votes from Maryland Terrapins alums?) by emblazoning "Fear the Turtle!" on the front of the press itinerary, complete with a little clip-art turtle on every page. The packet includes the latest Iowa poll results, which show Gephardt and Dean in a statistical tie for the lead, with Kerry and Edwards lagging behind. For good measure, the campaign throws in last week's favorable press clippings, including Des Moines Register wise man David Yepsen's assertion that Gephardt is the Iowa front-runner and that Dean has "plateaued" in the state. Also enclosed is a much-discussed Washington Post report—distributed, in truncated form, to voters at campaign events—that Gephardt is the candidate "many prominent Republicans fear the most." Not included is a delicious metaphor for Gephardt supporters to latch onto: While hurtling from campaign stop to campaign stop in Iowa over the past few months, the Dean van has been pulled over multiple times for speeding.

At his first stop, a senior center in Des Moines (the first of three consecutive senior centers visited by the campaign), Gephardt is supposed to deliver a "health policy address," but it turns out to be a rehash of old Howard Dean quotes about Medicare. (Later, while being ribbed by reporters about the false advertising, Gephardt's Iowa press secretary, Bill Burton, protests that he never called it a "major" policy address.) The newest wrinkle: Gephardt wants to paint the 1997 balanced budget accord—generally thought to be one of President Clinton's major accomplishments, and one supported by Dean—as a "deep, devastating cut" in Medicare.

While Gephardt speaks in front of a sign that reads "Protect Social Security" and "Protect Medicare" over and over, like computer-desktop wallpaper, I wonder: Does he really want to play this game? Dredging up old quotes and votes about Gephardt's onetime conservatism is what helped to derail his '88 campaign. He voted against the establishment of the Department of Education. He voted for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. He voted to means-test Social Security and to eliminate cost-of-living adjustments from the program. He voted for Reagan's 1981 tax cuts. He opposed an increase in the minimum wage. Does a man with a legislative record this long and varied really want to ostentatiously declare, "There are life-and-death consequences to every position taken and every vote cast"? If that's so, how many times was Dick Gephardt on the side of death?

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For now, however, it's a more recent House vote that's preventing Gephardt from running away with the Iowa race. At nearly every campaign event I attend, Gephardt is forced to deliver, in effect, two separate stump speeches. The first is the one he would like the campaign to be about: universal health care, jobs, and the immorality of rapacious multinational corporations. Gephardt's not anticapitalist: "Capitalism is the best system," he says in Pocahontas. "But capitalism has to have rules, so the capitalists don't destroy the very system" they benefit from.

He describes his visits to Mexico, China, and India, where workers live in the cardboard boxes used to ship the products they make. "I smelled where they live," he says. They live without electricity, without running water, with raw sewage running down the streets and next to "drainage ditches filled with human waste." "They live in worse conditions than farm animals in Iowa," he continues. "This is nothing short of human exploitation, that's what it is, for the profit of some special interests in the world." I'm not sure I agree with Gephardt's proposed solutions—though I'm intrigued by his notion of a variable international minimum wage—but there's no denying that he's a powerful critic of global capitalism's excesses.

Then, once Gephardt has finished and the applause has subsided, almost invariably a voter raises his hand to ask: What about Iraq? Was this war about oil? How can we recover the world's respect? How can we pay for all your programs with a war on?

At this point, Gephardt is forced to unveil stump speech No. 2. Sept. 11 changed everything, he says. Government's highest obligation is to protect American lives. In a Gephardt administration, the highest priority would be to prevent a nuclear device—"dirty or clean"—from going off in New York, Los Angeles, or Des Moines. That's why he decided Saddam Hussein needed to be removed. He supported the war because he believed the estimates of the CIA and the warnings of former Clinton administration officials, not because he listened to President Bush ("I would never do that").

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Slowly, Gephardt's defense of his vote for the congressional war resolution transitions into a critique of the president. Though in an interview he insisted that the president was smart, on the stump he's not shy about insinuating that the president (whom he often refers to as "Dubya") is stupid. "He's incompetent," "He frightens me," "He's hard to help," I told him America founded the United Nations because "I wasn't sure he knew the history," and "If you'd been meeting with him every week since 9/11, you'd be running for president," too. Because Bush refused to negotiate with Kim Jong Il, North Korea is now "weeks away" from producing nuclear bombs. Bush abandoned the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, saying, "It's not our problem." He's arrogant. He doesn't play well with others. By the end, people are satisfied enough with Gephardt's explanation, and maybe even a little terrified, but you get the sense that they're not enthused by it.

But Gephardt isn't counting on enthusiasm. He has a couple edges on Dean, in addition to his obvious union support. For one, a surprising number of Iowa Democrats just don't like the former Vermont governor. The opposition to Gephardt tends to be substantive, based on his support for the war or his failure as Democratic leader to enact a more Democratic agenda. But the opposition to Dean is stylistic, or maybe even cultural. In socially conservative Iowa, sometimes you hear it whispered: Where's Dean's wife? Before Gephardt arrives at an event in the town of Ida Grove, I overhear a woman grumble about Judith Steinberg's refusal to campaign for her husband. "I can't get used to that," she tells her companion. "It's supposed to be a family thing."

By the same token, Gephardt never fails to mention the "church loans" and "church scholarships" that allowed him to attend Northwestern and then Michigan law school. He also refers to his son, Matt, who survived prostate cancer as an infant, as a "gift of God." I don't think I've ever heard Howard Dean say the word "God" in reference to anything.

Just before the last stop in Sioux City, I'm granted a 10-minute ride-along interview with Gephardt. I've got a number of questions, but the one I really want an answer to is this: If balanced budgets and free trade—two things that don't get a lot of emphasis in the Gephardt platform—weren't the secrets of the Clinton economy, what were? Higher taxes for the rich? Gephardt explains that the '97 budget accord wasn't needed to balance the budget, and then he tries to explain why Bush's steel tariffs—which Gephardt supported, and which made the United States lose manufacturing jobs—aren't analogous to the retaliatory tariffs Gephardt wants to be able to impose on foreign products or factories that don't comply with minimal labor and environmental standards. Soon enough, we're so sidetracked that I've forgotten entirely what we were talking about.

But afterward, when I'm once again following Gephardt in my rental car, I'm left with my question: Clinton balanced the budget and promoted free trade, and the economy boomed. President Bush ran up enormous deficits and put new restrictions on trade, and the economy sputtered. Isn't Dick Gephardt's plan closer to President Bush's?