Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988. He turned the campaign around with a single television ad, about the alleged unfairness of free trade. The victory proved his electoral apogee that year. But he had learned something about the subtle arc of a political season, a lesson about patience and timing that none of his current opponents for the Democratic nomination, rookies all, could possibly understand. This year, he has plodded alongthe tortoiseas Howard Dean, who races through sentences so quickly that the words often tumble into one another, drew huge summer crowds and seemed to be gliding toward the nomination.
In recent weeks, though, the tortoise has begun to stir. Gephardt had strong performances in the first two presidential debatesand last week he chose a quiet Friday afternoon to take a roundhouse swing at Dean on the ancient but still potent issues of Social Security and Medicare. In each case, he used a most un-Gephardtian quality to drive his point home: a flushed, sputtering anger. Gephardt's anger is an utterly transparent industrial age process, like a steam locomotive creaking out of a station. A calculation is made: Dean's anti-Bush ballistics are working. Chug. Need to match that. Chug. In the first debate, Gephardt slowly torqued himself intochug-chugfury over the President's foreign policy, which "is"chug-chug-chug!"a miserable failure." Wild applause. Gephardt seemed to blink, surprised. "I came up with that line right there, on the spot," he told me. "It just spilled out of me."
It has been spilling ever since. Gephardt appears to be working his way through a thesaurus of anger. In the second debate, the Bush Administration was an "abomination." In our conversation last week, Bush was "atrocious." Can "awful" be far behind? The attack on Dean was similarly transparent but not as amusing as the debate performances. Demographically, Iowa is among the oldest of states. In the past Dean had been typically frank about old-age entitlements. He had supported raising the age of eligibility for Social Security, and moving away from Medicare's costly fee-for-service medicine toward managed care. These were plausible, even noble positions, but he had taken them in typical Deanian fashion, by wildly overstating the case. Medicare, Dean told the Associated Press in 1993, was "one of the worst things that ever happened ... a bureaucratic disaster."
Gephardt's assault on Dean for merely contemplating reform of both programs was almost completely irresponsible. He told a Des Moines audience of aged Iowa trade-unionists how important those entitlements had been to his 95-year-old mother, but he had nothing to say about the financial burdens they will place on his grandchildren. He did not even acknowledge the actuarial crises in Social Security and Medicare; he did not propose any reforms at all.
Later, over lunch, he indicated that Social Security and Medicare should stay pretty much the way they are; a balanced budget, a growing economyonce the bloodthirsty, bloviating Bushies are removed from officewill pay for it. And so, the strategy revealed: Gephardt has decided to challenge Dean's Internet whippersnappers by appealing to the elderly. He will have the Teamsters and Auto Workers drive the old folks to the polls.
Gephardt began his speech by saying, "Most of us in this room can remember 1950"a line Howard Dean undoubtedly has never uttered, since most of his supporters weren't born then. And it does seem that Gephardt's world view was pickled in 1950, in the era of big manufacturing and big unions and Big Government. There is a fair amount of nostalgia in Iowa for those daysand Gephardt's geriatric strategy, bolstered by his door-to-door stubbornness, may prove a stultifying antidote to Dean's unnerving whoosh of a campaign.
Dean has had a rough couple of weeks. In the debates, he's been less of a fresh breeze and more of a suitand not a very charming one at that. When attacked, he righteously tucks his chin into his chest and looks a bit like the Saturday Night Live Church Lady. He is learning the perils of impolitic candor. A national cnn poll last week put Dean's summer surge in perspective: Gephardt, Dean, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry were bunched in the teens, with the flavor of next month, General Wesley Clark, surprisingly strong at 10%. This is a wide-open raceand the tortoise is a player.