If ever a man was born to wear a suit, it's shiny Rep. Richard Gephardt. But these days, whenever possible, Gephardt affects a down parka and Caterpillar Tractor-style cap, in keeping with his new role as tribune of the people. To me he looks like a well-scrubbed little boy playing "farmer in the dell." Yet, combined with a lot of railing against "the establishment" and "the status quo," it seems to be working. Gephardt is leading slightly in the polls for the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Many have commented on Gephardt's remarkable transformation. After the 1984 election disaster, he was a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (or "Democrats for the Leisure Class," as Jesse Jackson styles it), a group dedicated explicitly to moving the party to the right. He was widely thought of as a "neoliberal." Just last August he told David Broder, "If you need a label for me, moderate is as good as any." In recent years he's flip-flopped on abortion, busing, the minimum wage, the Equal Rights Amendment, among other issues.

Everything about Gephardt's plodding political career and his bland personality suggests that his new-found progressive-populist passion is phony. But even if the passion is sincere, the populism is a fraud.

Gephardt talks like this: "We have to have a president in this country who says to the American people that selfishness and greed, get mine now, {are} not the highest values. . . . We gotta care about one another again. We gotta send a message of compassion." This is exactly how Democrats should be talking. But Gephardt never tells his audiences that they should be more compassionate, or contribute more to help others, or reject their own status quo. His actual platform is one long "get mine now."

Gephardt's farm program would create a government-supervised national food cartel, controlling production, giving a monopoly to current producers and guaranteeing them higher prices. The typical farmer -- even the typical "small family farmer" -- has assets worth several hundred thousand dollars, which the typical food consumer does not. So this idea clearly is not "progressive" in the financial sense. Nor is it "progressive" in the temporal sense to try to halt the migration from farming that has been going on for more than a century.

Gephardt is best known for his call to "get tough" about foreign trade barriers. He concedes, when pressed, that these barriers have caused only a small fraction of our trade problems. But he fearlessly exploits their demagogic potential. He insists that his call for new trade barriers of our own is not "protectionist" because his ultimate goal is a world of completely free trade.

Be that as it may, the appeal of trade barriers as a campaign issue is not that they will lead to free trade and higher exports in some rosy future. It's that they will halt competition from imports now. When Gephardt visits specific factories and promises to save specific jobs, he is not promoting a vision of free trade -- which would destroy far more current jobs than the semi-free trade we have today (though it also would create even more new ones). He's promoting a vision of economic stasis, which is "progressive" in neither sense.

Gephardt supports an oil import fee to guarantee a minimum price of $24 a barrel. With a current price of $18 and consumption running about 6 billion barrels a year, this would cost consumers about $36 billion a year. But since three-fifths of the oil we consume is domestic, not imported, only $14 billion or so would come to the government. More than $21 billion would be pocketed by domestic oil producers. Is a tax on consumers to benefit mainly oil barons "progressive"?

In 1985 Gephardt supported a failed effort to freeze Social Security benefits as part of a budget plan. Today he claims the "political establishment" is "just waiting for the election to be over so they can go back to trying to cut Social Security." This is hilarious, since there can't be a more establishment issue in the entire political firmament than the sanctity of every penny of Social Security. Only a few renegades like Bruce Babbitt have dared to point out that Social Security recipients get back far more than they put in, and to suggest that perhaps the better off among them could do with a bit less. Social Security is financed by a starkly regressive and increasingly burdensome tax on working people. What is "progressive" about opposing any tiny change in the system?

Gephardt has perfected the Cuomo bait-and-switch, named after its formerly most skilled practitioner. It consists of marketing reactionary liberalism as "progressive" and clothing appeals to selfishness in the language of compassion. The trick is to promote a sense of grievance, which Gephardt does by telling farmers that their crisis is getting worse (though it isn't) and old folks that people in Washington are plotting to take away their Social Security. It may work. And if it doesn't, what the heck, he can always become a moderate again.