When President Bush put forward his demand for a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, several moderate Republican Senators, including Dick Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, initially balked. The president, they felt, simply hadn't laid the groundwork for an effective military campaign. They began working with Senate Democrats on constructing a compromise resolution that would contemplate the use of force while restricting the president's power to go to war without a U.N. resolution and broad international support. For a brief moment, it looked like a done deal.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it was announced that Dick Gephardt, leader of the House Democrats, had cut a deal -- a total capitulation to the president's demands, in fact -- with the White House, undermining the negotiating power of Senate Democrats and GOP moderates alike. The result was not only the Iraq War as we know it, but to put many congressional Democrats, John Kerry included, in a rather untenable position. Either vote no and leave yourself open to the charge of thinking that the continued deterioration of the sanctions and inspections in Iraq could simply be ignored, or vote yes and take it as a matter of faith that the president would exercise this broad discretionary power wisely. Thus Kerry and others found themselves voting yes while attaching verbal caveats, rather than voting for a resolution that would have attached actual caveats, and the country's best hope for a rational Iraq policy was dashed.
Nevertheless, all accounts have Gephardt on the short list for vice president and several sources are indicating that it's already a done deal.
The former majority leader's Iraq policy might in some sense be forgivable were Gephardt, like his partner-in-crime Joe Lieberman, some kind of consistent hawk. As a proponent of a nuclear freeze in the 1980s and the leader of the opposition to the Gulf War in the early nineties, however, Gephardt is no such thing. He is, rather, an opportunist who thought the deal would help elevate him to the White House. Politics is a dirty business and a certain amount of opportunism is to be expected, but Gephardt proved himself to be a rather inept opportunist. His caucus suffered unprecedented losses in the 2002 midterms in no small part due to their Gephardt-related inability to devise a coherent foreign policy. And as a presidential candidate, too, Gephardt was, to use his own memorable phrase, "a miserable failure," unable to even get near second place in an Iowa contest he was thought to have locked up.
Times being what they are, however, Gephardt's failings as a substantive leader are of only limited interest. In January, The New Republic's Michael Crowley wrote that Gephardt's signature policy proposal -- an extremely expensive universal health care plan -- was "ill-advised" and "especially fanciful," and that his domestic agenda as a whole did not "make sense" for the times. He was right. Still, said Crowley, "what truly sets him apart from the rest of the Democratic field can be summed up in one word: electability."
Indeed, electability is the order of the day. So would picking Dick Gephardt help Kerry win the election? The short answer is "no." The long answer is "no way."
One useful asset a VP pick might possess is the ability to carry his state into the Democratic fold; since Gephardt's Missouri is a perennial bellwether there's a superficially compelling case here. The main problem here, as Chris Suellentrop recently noted is that Missouri voters don't seem to like Gephardt. He's never run statewide. His actual constituents are limited to one congressional district that Gore won without him in 2000 and that will doubtless go for Kerry again. The Missouri voters with whom Kerry needs some help live in the rural and exurban parts of the state and positively hate St. Louis and Kansas City politicians, such as Gephardt. They know the guy, and they don't like him. Why would you pick a guy who's all-but-guaranteed to lose his potentially crucial home state? For the sake of Ohio, goes the theory, where Gephardt's working-class cred will provide a needed boost to the aristocratic Kerry. And perhaps it would, but couldn't Edwards do the job just as well, while also doing better in next-door Missouri and maybe even North Carolina (where things are surprisingly close)?
But Gephardt's real electability problem stems from the way he would transform the larger dynamic of the race for the worse. Kerry's strength going into the election is that he's an experienced, sober-looking veteran of both political and military conflict. As a result, unlike Bush during the 2000 election, he has no need to bring an experienced, sober-looking veteran of political conflict like Gephardt onto the ticket to reassure voters. Kerry's problem is that his long voting record has provided much fodder for the RNC research team and saddled him with a reputation as a flip-flopper. Gephardt's record is even longer than Kerry's and so full of flops as to make Kerry look like a rank amateur.
The basic story can be summed up easily enough. Gephardt was an early leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in the '80s, only to become the leader of the Democratic left by the late 90s, seriously contemplating a 2000 presidential bid to prevent the DLC-ification of the party under Al Gore. In his 2004 run he took some stances (on Iraq, say) that were too far right for the primary electorate and others (on taxes and spending) that were too far left, while transmogrifying his demagogic but potentially vote-winning economic nationalism into a soft-hearted crusade to raise third-world living standards. Not surprisingly, in light of his strange strategy of abandoning all his views in favor of less-popular ones, he lost. Badly. Even among working-class voters. Even among members of unions that endorsed him! Electoral gold this isn't.
On the campaign trail, Gephardt liked to style himself a balanced-budget maven, the driving force behind the package of Bill Clinton's 1993 budget. Nevertheless, he found himself proposing the most fiscally irresponsible domestic agenda of any major candidate. A politician planning to rack up massive public debt might be expected to at least spare himself the need to support unpopular tax increases. But no. Gephardt wanted to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts, even the relatively unobjectionable and highly popular elements directed at the middle class. Even the parts that were inserted only at the insistence of congressional Democrats led at the time by none other than... Dick Gephardt. Not content with his conflicting identities as both a deficit hawk and a big spender, Gephardt had even managed to vote for the 1981 Reagan tax cuts.
Gephardt even managed to flip-flop on gay marriage within a single sentence last November: "I do not support gay marriage, but I hope the Massachusetts Legislature will act in a manner that is consistent" with the judicial ruling mandating that gays be allowed to marry.
On one level, this all doesn't really matter. I'm sure that in his heart Gephardt, like other Democrats, simply intends to do all he can for gay rights that's consistent with winning elections. That he does an even worse job than Kerry of pretending to have a principled stance here is merely an instance of verbal infelicity. Plus, we're only talking about the vice presidency here. Even if he were to execute a Cheney-like power grab, he'd still be, well, not Dick Cheney. And the merits of his domestic policy proposals are, like Kerry's, somewhat irrelevant in light of the fact that everything will need to be reassessed in light of a post-election situation that will, at best, leave moderate Senate Republicans controlling the balance of power.
What's important is that Gephardt's record -- or rather, his many records -- will be putty in the hands of the Bush campaign, reinforcing their main line of critique against Kerry while adding nothing of value. Arguably, this would be a reasonable price to pay if we were talking about some kind of paragon of political virtue, but we aren't. We're talking about a man who helped drive the country to war in pursuit of transient electoral advantage and didn't even managed to derive any electoral advantage from it. The rap on Gephardt used to be that he was a pawn of the unions (which isn't the worst thing a politician could be), but over the past several years he's lost the confidence of the most dynamic and innovative sectors of organized labor, like the SEIU, leaving him the standard-bearer for dying industrial unions and Jimmy Hoffa's retrograde retrograde Teamsters. The country can do better.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.