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Withdrew Jan. 20, 2004

"I look forward to challenging President Bush and offering a distinctive choice and different direction for our domestic, economic and national security policies a difference that will lead to a safer, more secure and more prosperous future for all Americans."     --Rep. Dick Gephardt-Jan. 4, 2003 Statement

Democratic Workhorse
 "You give us the gavel back and we'll give you America back!"  With these twelve words then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt led congressional Democrats into the 2002 mid-term elections.  This marked Gephardt's fourth attempt to "take back the House" after Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, swept to control in November 1994, and he put in yeoman work to achieve his goal, holding and attending countless press conferences and events on prescription drugs and Social Security, pension reform and the economy and stumping with Democratic candidates around the country.

However, Tuesday, November 5, 2002 proved to be a long, disappointing night for Democrats.  While most attention focused on the Senate, where Republicans needed to pick up but one seat to regain control, the picture on the House side was equally bleak.  For months, Democrats had highlighted the prospects of candidates in districts around the country whom it hoped would present strong challenges to GOP incumbents.  Martha Fuller Clark in the open New Hampshire First...  Dr. Julie Thomas running against Rep. Jim Leach in the reconfigured Iowa Second...  Now, in seat after seat, most of these challengers went down to defeat, shutting the door on what proved to be Gephardt's final attempt to claim the title of Speaker.  On Wednesday, Gephardt told his hometown paper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, that he would not seek to continue as minority leader; he issued a formal statement explaining his decision the next day. 

Gephardt issued a statement on January 4, 2003 announcing that he is establishing a presidential exploratory committee.  The nationwide network of friends and supporters he has built up during his years as Democratic leader and his strong ties to organized labor will stand Gephardt in good stead in the presidential race, although some will argue he has been too long in Washington, and the Democrats' failure to recapture the House may undercut his prospects more difficult.

Gephardt sometimes notes that his mother wanted him to be a Baptist minister, but he "really went astray."  "I decided that I could do what she wanted me to do and what I wanted to do in the ministry better in politics," he states.  He started in politics in 1965 as a young attorney serving as precinct captain in the second precinct of the 14th Ward in St. Louis, going door to door.  He was first elected to office in 1971, winning a seat on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, and he went on to win his seat in Congress in 1976.  In 1988 Gephardt ran for president.  He finished first in the Iowa caucuses, but Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis ultimately prevailed.  He thought about a run in 2000, but ruled it out.

Two thousand and two marked Gephardt's 25th year in Congress, and he started with a flurry of activity.  The day after returning from a trip to five Middle Eastern countries, January 9-18, he delivered a passionate speech to the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee; "Speaker Gephardt" signs were spread throughout the audience. 

On January 24, less than a week before President Bush's State of the Union address, Gephardt presented an economic address, "The Long Look Ahead," to the Democratic Leadership Council.  Gephardt, who served as the first chair of the DLC, has known DLC president Al From for more than 40 years; although the DLC espouses a centrist New Democrat philosophy, several prominent Democrats of a more liberal persuasion were in the audience, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and erstwhile Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile. 

Gephardt called for an economic growth summit at the White House and outlined four economic goals: "achieving energy independence2, improving our education, creating a universal pension system, and deploying new technologies to help protect our people and grow our economy."  The choice of themes was no doubt influenced by the Enron scandal, which was in full bloom at the time.  Gephardt reiterated the main points of his DLC speech on January 29, delivering the Democratic response to President George W. Bush's first State of the Union address. 

A month later, Gephardt had one of his few successes in the 107th Congress as he demonstrated strong leadership on the campaign finance reform bill, helping to get signatures on the discharge petition needed to force a vote and uniting Democrats behind the legislation.  On February 14, the House voted 240-189 to pass H.R.2356, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.  One hundred and ninety eight of 210 voting Democrats (94 percent) voted for the measure.  Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer lauded Gephardt's role in glowing terms.  Speaking as the Senate moved to pass the bill on March 20, Wertheimer said, "Dick Gephardt is a central reason why the American people have won today."  "He provided heroic leadership here," Wertheimer stated.   "He believed in it.  He fought for it.  He really wanted this to happen."  Although a number observers argued that the legislation could harm Democrats, who rely on soft money to a greater degree, Gephardt cited a need to "get people back into this democracy."  "We've gotta kill off the cynicism and the disbelief and the skepticism that exists among our people.  And this bill will do more than anything I've seen in my 25 years here to move us in the right direction," he stated.

Throughout the year, Gephardt, along with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, remained one of the Democratic party's most visible spokesmen.  However, he seemed increasingly frustrated as 2002 progressed.  For example, in a September 26, 2002 joint dugout with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Gephardt stated:

"We haven't done anything in the House since we came back in August.  We could have better stayed out in our districts and tried to maybe help the local economy a little bit at the local level.

"This has been a sad, pathetic performance by this leadership in the House.  They seemingly just want to get out of here, do nothing, address none of the problems the American people really care about, and act like they're doing something.  It is the worst performance I've ever seen in my time in the House." 

While Gephardt found himself and his party stymied on issue after issue by the Republican majority, he did find himself in agreement with many Republicans on one of the central questions of the day, that of the use of force against Iraq.  On October 2, 2002 he appeared with President Bush and congressional leaders in the Rose Garden to express his support for the resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, citing the "need to deal with this threat diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must." 

A week later he took on another controversial issue, the question of immigration reform.  Gephardt backed the Earned Legalization and Family Unification Act of 2002, which would allow undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for five years and worked for two years to legalize their status.

In the aftermath of November 5, critics and even some friends, said that Gephardt and Daschle had not presented a clear, consistent Democratic message.  If all those press conferences and events did not add up to a winning message, however, none faulted the energy and effort that Gephardt expended in pursuit of the House majority.  Now, having fallen short in that endeavor, the veteran Missouri legislator must decide whether, as has been widely anticipated, he will take one more shot at the White House, or whether he will pursue a different direction. 

Updated February 19, 2003
Strengths and Weaknesses
+ From his years of service as Democratic leader and his 1988 presidential run, Gephardt knows and is well known to many, many Democratic activists.
+ Gephardt could likely count on significant labor support.
+ When he hits his stride, Gephardt is one of the best and most impassioned speakers in the Democratic party.

- Gephardt 's inability to "take back the House" in four attempts after Republicans gained the majority in 1994 undercuts his prospects.
- Historically, the House has not proven a good base from which to launch a presidential campaign.
- Gephardt's 25-plus years in the Beltway may be too long in the view of some people.

Readings and Resources
MSNBC "The Campaign Embeds" Priya David on Dick Gephardt.  
ABC News "Field Notes: Inside the Gephardt Campaign" Sally Hawkins. > 

Robin Toner.  "For Gephardt, Congress Role is Both Platform and Hurdle."  New York Times.  November 16, 2003.  [First of weekly series "Challenging Bush"].

Brian C. Mooney.  "With 2nd presidential bid comes a personal touch."  Boston Globe.  October 19, 2003.  ["Candidate in the Making"].

Libby Quaid.  "For veteran Gephardt, a second shot at showing he is tomorrow's leader.  Associated Press.  October 2,  2003. (1,540 words) 

Jim VandeHei.  "A 'Moral' Mission In Political Final Act: Gephardt Crusades On Health Care." Washington Post.  July 19, 2003.  [Eighth of weekly series "The Contenders"].

St. Louis Post-Dispatch's "The evolution of Gephardt" series:
"Washington Bureau reporters Bill Lambrecht and Deirdre Shesgreen inspected Gephardt's votes, read his speeches and conducted more than 50 interviews to gain fresh insight into his career."
"Health care makeovers, letdowns have marked tenure."  July 9, 2003. 
"Congressman has spent career at center of tax, budget battles."  July 8, 2003.
"War brought congressman's policy back to where it started: More hawk, less dove."  July 7, 2003.
"Abortion stance shows wider shift on social issues."  July 5, 2003.
"The evolution of Richard Gephardt."  July 5, 2003.

Mark Z. Barabak.  "Richard Gephardt: Missouri Congressman, in Second Run at the White House, Says His Vast Experience and 'Steady Hands' Set Him Apart.  Los Angeles Times.  June 8, 2003.  [Third of weekly series "The Democratic Hopefuls"].

Bob Edwards.  "The Candidates: Rep. Richard Gephardt."  NPR Morning Edition interview.  March 6, 2003. >

Katharine Q. Seelye.  "Veteran Lawmaker Is Restyling Himself As Can-Do Candidate."  New York Times.  January 6, 2002.  [Fifth of weekly series "2004: Presidential Prospects"]. 

Gebe Martinez.  "Thinking Outside the House: Democrats Guess at Gephardt's Plans."  CQ Weekly.  October 19, 2002.

Richard E. Cohen.  "After Gephardt."  National Journal.  June 8, 2002.  [cover-"Outta Here?"]

Speeches and Statements
Announcement of Withdrawal as a Candidate, St. Louis, MO, January 20, 2004.

Announcement of Presidential Candidacy, Mason Elementary School, St. Louis, MO, February 19, 2003.

Statement on Establishing an Exploratory Committee, January 4, 2003.

Statement on Decision Not to Run for Democratic Leader, November 7, 2002.

"Citizen Government: Old Values, New Ideas," Democratic Leadership Council's National Conversation, New York City, July 30, 2002.

"Building a New Long-Term Strategy for American Leadership and Security," The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC, June 4, 2002.

Arizona Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Phoenix, AZ, March 9, 2002.

"The Long Look Ahead," Democratic Leadership Council, Washington, DC, January 24, 2002.

1. Even in the Spring of 2002 some in Washington were already starting to think about a post-Gephardt era.  See for example J.P. Cassidy's article in the March 26, 2002 issue of The Hill headlined "Gephardt's succession struggle shaping up as a vicious contest."

2. This was second major speech in three days to hit energy themes; Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) delivered a major energy speech on January 22. 

Photo caption: Minority Leader Dick Gephardt speaks out against the Fast Track Trade Authority (also know as Trade Promotion Authority) bill, H.R. 3005, in a Dec. 6, 2001 event in front of the Capitol.  The bill passed the House later that day in a 215-214 vote.

Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action