In Defense of Macaroni and Cheese

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I'm not going to say what's fashionable in our politics — that I'm a Washington outsider, that I couldn't find the nation's capital on a map, that I have no experience in the highest levels of government. I do, and I think that experience matters," Representative Richard Gephardt said last week, toward the end of the speech in which he announced his candidacy for President. "I'm not the political flavor of the month. I'm not the flashiest candidate around. But the fight for working families is in my bones. It's where I come from; it's been my life's work."

It was a moment of stunning authenticity, which roused a partisan audience — and a dozing press corps — at the end of a thoughtful, well-written drone. Poor Gephardt: put a microphone in front of him and he sounds like he's trying to climb the down escalator. He also has the coloring and demeanor of macaroni and cheese. Recently, he compared himself to a pair of old sneakers. This, believe it or not, is a strategy. In fact, it's probably a pretty smart strategy: Gephardt is attempting to fuse the two qualities that will be the most important in the coming presidential campaign: experience and plainspeaking.

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Gephardt and Senator Joe Lieberman are bookends, of a sort. Gephardt represents the decent past — the blue-collar, Roosevelt coalition, Midwestern populist, Old Democratic Party. Lieberman represents the recent past — the high-tech, welfare-reforming, free-trading New Democratic Party. And both seem slightly irrelevant so far. Both are solid citizens, but older, less hip than their competitors; neither seems comfortable being ushered to the stage with rock music. Neither lights any fires on the stump. They are probably the two most hawkish Democrats in the race. These are not advantages with party activists at the moment.

There is a certain sadness to watching both men work this time around — especially in Iowa last week, where peace is the issue, hot is the style, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is rapidly becoming the flavor of the month. Ask an Iowa Democrat about Gephardt or Lieberman, and the most common reaction is a sigh. Meanwhile, Dean is wicked fun, a candidate who works without text and without net, excoriating his fellow Democrats for supporting President Bush on Iraq (while cleverly leaving a way to support Bush himself — if Saddam is found to be developing nukes, and if the United Nations is willing to go along). Dean speaks English, not focus group or legislatese. He sounds fresh — and last Friday, in Washington, he set the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting ablaze. "My name is Howard Dean," he said, after firing off a fusillade of examples of Democratic wimpiness, "and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

By contrast, Gephardt and Lieberman, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, seem to be moving, and talking, in slow motion. All three spend a fair amount of time telling their personal stories, which are compelling. All three say they are fighting for average folks like their parents. All three voted with the President on Iraq and try to confront that issue straight on. Edwards is best at this: "I know you don't agree with me on Iraq," he told an audience in Indianola, Iowa, which seemed to be entirely composed of peace activists, "but I want to tell you directly, from my own mouth, why I feel the way I do about this." And then Edwards — Gephardt and Lieberman do almost exactly the same — said Saddam is a real threat who needs to be disarmed, but quickly moved on to the President's "cowboy mentality" and diplomatic depredations: "Your family is safer in a world where people look up to America than in a world where we are hated." At this, an elderly woman named Jane Majors scribbled a sign with Magic Marker and held it above her head: BUT WAR WILL MAKE THEM HATE US MORE.

And so there's a tortoise-and-hare quality to the campaign. Dean dashing, the others slogging along, ducking brickbats and trying to explain themselves. (Senator John Kerry, whom most of the candidates privately see as the front runner, was recuperating last week from prostate-cancer surgery.) There will be changes soon. An embarrassing swarm of newcomers — including a buffoon brigade, starring the Rev. Al Sharpton — seems likely to clog the stage in the coming weeks. But the biggest changes will be outside the candidates' control: this campaign, more than any other in recent memory, will be defined by events in the world. The looming war, the possibility of another terrorist attack, the hunt for Osama bin Laden — the race will be an endless series of surprises.

In such circumstances, steadiness will probably be more important than speed or heat or flash. Dean will have a role to play: he'll sharpen the others, teach them how to speak English, force them to clarify their positions. But I suspect that a year from now, when the voting begins, the public will be more in the mood for comfort food — perhaps even macaroni and cheese.