Launching a presidential bid 16 years after his first try, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt today assailed President Bush's economic policies, saying it would be better to cancel the administration's tax cuts and use the money to help workers obtain health insurance.
Gephardt told supporters at his old elementary school that Bush "has left us isolated in the world and stranded here at home." In kick-starting a campaign that he quietly announced with a Jan. 4 written statement, the Missouri Democrat proposed a global minimum wage and other measures to create jobs.
He called for voiding virtually all the corporate and individual tax breaks that Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 and has proposed this year -- $2 trillion worth in the next 10 years. He would use that money, he said, to guarantee health insurance for every working American, by subsidizing employers and employees.
Gephardt also promised to create a universal pension plan, portable from job to job; a new Teacher Corps to lure 2.5 million newcomers into classrooms with the promise of college tuition aid, and expanded before- and after-school programs. On his signature issue of trade, he said he would urge the World Trade Organization to "establish an international minimum wage," adjusted for individual countries, to reduce the flight of U.S. jobs to foreign lands.
Gephardt raked the Bush administration for not embracing alternative energy plans to lessen U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil, and for lagging in homeland defense measures. But he saved his toughest rhetoric for the economic record, saying, "President Bush has taken us right back to the broken policies of the past, the economics of debt and regret: unaffordable tax cuts for the few. Zero new jobs. Surging unemployment."
Supporters, including congressional colleagues and staff members from his 1987-88 presidential campaign, cheered the former House minority leader as he declared at the Mason Elementary School: "With pride and purpose, I say to you today, I'm going to fight for you and I'm going to win."
Certainly, Gephardt's circumstances are vastly different. In 1987, the 46-year-old son of a St. Louis milkman was unknown to most Democrats after 10 years in the House, and his presidential bid ended long before the national convention that nominated Michael Dukakis.
Now 62, Gephardt is the most seasoned, nationally experienced contender in the expanding Democratic field, with the largest Rolodex of local party officials he has helped, and contributors he has tapped for himself and for other candidates. No one has deeper ties to organized labor and -- despite his break over trade policy -- no one has a longer history with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, the political home of past nominees Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Still, rivals question whether Gephardt -- who failed in four elections to restore Democratic majorities in the House and who was on the losing side of many policy battles with the Reagan, Bush and Clinton White Houses -- can convince Democratic voters he has what it takes to recapture the presidency for the party. Aiming to answer those doubts, Gephardt today combined a ringing indictment of Bush's economic and social policies with a set of "bold" initiatives that his strategists said were designed to show he is more than a skilled legislative negotiator.
And Gephardt struck an aggressive stance in trying to convert what some call his greatest liability -- his long history on the national political stage -- into an advantage. Acknowledging that "I'm not the political flavor of the month," he said, "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 at the highest levels of government. I do, and I think experience matters. It's what our nation needs right now."
In a crowded Democratic field, Gephardt's speech today touched the main areas that may distinguish him from the others: Generally more hawkish on Iraq; less receptive to unfettered trade; sharply critical of Bush's tax cuts, and more experienced in government.
He followed today's kickoff with a plane trip to Iowa and New Hampshire, site of the first two delegate contests next January. In 1988, he won the Iowa caucuses and finished second to Dukakis in New Hampshire, but, hobbled by a money shortage, he faded and withdrew from the race in time to run for reelection to the House.
This time, Gephardt has encouraged people here to believe he will not run for the House in 2004, no matter how he fares in the presidential quest.
More than any of his presidential rivals, he has challenged the direction of U.S. trade policy under Republican and Democratic presidents, arguing that American workers have lost jobs and wages to imports from countries that exploit their citizens and block U.S. exports. That stance has made him a hero to some industrial unions but opened a breach with the more business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council, of which Gephardt was a founder.
Gephardt also faces questions stemming from his history on the abortion issue. When first elected to the House in 1976, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban abortions. He abandoned that view two years before his first race for the presidency, and has moved closer to the Democratic platform position of supporting the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in all 50 states.
Last year, Gephardt became one of the first Democrats to lobby colleagues to support Bush's request for a resolution authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Most of his Democratic colleagues voted the other way, and antiwar Democrats, who are an important force in Iowa and New Hampshire, still criticize his stance.
Gephardt said today: "I stand with this administration's efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein, and I'm proud that I wrote the resolution that helped lead the president to make his case at the United Nations." But he called for further efforts to enlist allied support, saying, "We must lead the world, instead of merely bullying it."
Unlike 1987, when Gephardt was the first Democrat to announce his candidacy, this time he is far back in the parade. Already declared are former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, former senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and civil rights activist Al Sharpton. Several others, including Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former senator Gary Hart of Colorado and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio are contemplating candidacies.
Researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.