The Dems Get Ready For Prime Time

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A Moral Issue: Gephardt has hung his campaign on health care for all workers

It may seem like the race for the 2004 Democratic nomination has been underway for months, what with nine candidates barnstorming the early primary states, sharpening their one-liners against President Bush, raising tens of millions of dollars and mobilizing battalions of pollsters and political consultants. But when it comes to what matters most in politics, the contest didn't start until last Wednesday morning. In a crowded union hall in midtown Manhattan, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt produced the one thing that no other contender has: a really big idea.

Gephardt's idea is not just one of the most ambitious proposals that any presidential candidate has made in years, but one of the riskiest — treading into the political minefield that is health care with a proposal to spend more than $240 billion a year to cover nearly all the nation's 41 million uninsured. To pay for it, he would scrap President Bush's tax cut. "I realize this is dangerous territory," Gephardt told TIME, but added, "People deserve clear, distinct, meaningful alternatives."

In other words, exhibition season is over. The Democratic contenders spent the first quarter of 2003 testing and proving themselves in the political compulsories of raising money and building an organization. They had some noisy arguments over the prosecution of a war that only four of them had voted for. They offered modest, mostly recycled proposals here and there. And there were a few joint appearances before left-leaning interest groups who demanded little more than fawning tributes and Bush-baiting applause lines. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, sidelined to his sofa by surgery last February, sized up his competition on CSPAN as they gave their stump speeches before Democratic National Committee. "These guys look like they're running for the Senate," Kerry privately told campaign aides.

Not much longer can the candidates dodge what will be the key question, both for the primary contest and the matchup of a nominee against a formidable incumbent President: Do the Democrats have anything to offer? A sour economy at home (weekly unemployment claims rose 8,000 to 455,000 last week) and turmoil overseas could make the odds considerably better for the Democrats next year. But it's an outside shot — not to mention an unseemly hope — to count on bad news alone to carry a Democrat all the way to the White House. And unlike his father, this President Bush is not going to be caught napping without a domestic agenda of his own.

The answer may become a little clearer this weekend, when the nine candidates appear together in the first event to be billed as a debate. It's in South Carolina, an early primary state which will be a crucial test of which can sell themselves to Southerners and African-Americans. (ABC is offering the broadcast to its affiliates and C-SPAN will play it repeatedly.) But how much nine people can spar during an hour and a half is questionable. At such an event in Houston, the 1988 Democratic field began to earn its reputation as the "Seven Dwarves." Recalls Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council: "They quickly realized they all sounded alike — and they had 40 debates to go."

One of those seven back then was Gephardt, whose biggest liability now is the perception he's the candidate of Christmas Past. So it was probably a good move for him to steal a beat as the candidate of new ideas. Now he has to defend them. The centerpiece of his proposal is a requirement for all employers to provide health insurance for their workers — with the government reimbursing 60% of their costs by way of a tax credit. Gephardt says the plan doubles as an economic stimulus--and a far more effective one than the Bush tax cut it would replace. It won relatively good reviews from health-policy experts. But the Republican National Committee pounced on it, as did the National Federation of Independent Business, which called the proposal "Dr. Gephardt's Take-Two-Tax-Hikes-and-Call-Me-in-the-Morning remedy."

Of Gephardt's Democratic rivals, only former Vermont Governor Howard Dean criticized his proposal — on the record, at least. Dean, a physician, plans to make health care a centerpiece of his own campaign, called the Gephardt plan expensive and impractical; his own idea centers on expanding medicaid, and he contends he could achieve universal health coverage at half the cost of the Gephardt proposal. He promises to spell out the details, including its costs, when he gives the commencement address on June 4 at his alma mater, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

But while the end of the war brings Democrats their first real chance to talk about domestic issues, foreign policy will never be far from center stage. Dean faces a particular challenge to prove that there is more to his candidacy than the anti-war message that vaulted him from near-unknown into the top tier of candidates. He insists his opposition to the Iraq war will continue to pay political dividends because it speaks to a strength that goes beyond that issue. "I can stand up to President Bush, and that's a rare commodity," he says. "People will remember I was willing to continue my stand even when 70% of the American people supported the war."

Dean has continued to beat the anti-war drums. "We've gotten rid of him," Dean said of Saddam Hussein's ouster. "I suppose that's a good thing." Pressed again last week on CNN, Dean refused to concede that Iraq is better off without Saddam. And two weeks ago, while campaigning at a Stonyfield yogurt factory in New Hampshire, the would-be Commander-in-Chief suggested that America should be planning for a time when it is not the world's greatest superpower : "We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won't always have the strongest military."

Such comments could come back to haunt Dean. If there is a central political reality in post-9/11 America, it is this: Voters won't be willing to listen to a candidate's ideas on the economy or any other domestic issue unless they are first convinced that he or she is a credible, competent guardian of national security. That's a hurdle that the Governor of Arkansas didn't have to clear in 1992, nor the Governor of Texas eight years later. "Security is very much on the table, as much as it was in 1960 with Kennedy and Nixon," says Kerry, who is emphasizing both his Vietnam War record and his foreign policy record in his campaign.

And there is yet another challenge ahead: Democrats are betting on the presidential contest to bring an end to the ideological identity crisis they have been struggling with since simultaneously losing both Bill Clinton and the traumatic 2000 election. Three years ago, so many had signed on to Clinton's centrist vision that their rallying cry was "we are all New Democrats now;" these days, Democrats are so fractured, so lacking in purpose that Dean's surest (if borrowed) applause line is his declaration that he represents "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."