Gephardt puts away his disco shoes

So John Kerry won the Iowa Democratic caucuses, and Howard Dean lost. Blah, blah, blah. You cannot really say that this was a bolt from the blue; after all, Kerry had been polling a few points ahead of Dean last week, and the same polls essentially predicted a four-way race anyway. And the press spent all last week talking about how Iowans just love to change their minds at the last minute. But did anyone expect that the venerable Dick Gephardt, former House Minority Leader and winner of the 1988 Iowa caucuses, would finish a distant fourth place?

All dressed up but with nowhere to go, the down-and-out Gephardt announced Tuesday his withdrawal from the race for the Democratic nomination, and also announced he would not run for reelection to his House seat in Missouri, thus ending a career that began when “Saturday Night Fever” was just hitting theaters.

Only the most hardened heart cannot help but have a bit of sympathy for the man. He has tried so hard to be president for so long, and for it to end like this? Monday night, the Washington Post reported, Gephardt had fewer supporters on hand at a Des Moines caucus than did fellow Democratic nominee Dennis Kucinich. It is an ignominious end for a man with such a long and relatively successful career in politics.

What was so wrong with Gephardt? A rank-and-file caucus-goer quoted in the Post summed it up pretty well: “[Gephardt] is a good guy, but I don’t think he’s electable. I don’t think he projects enough leadership. He’s a traditional Democrat.” Yep, “traditional” Democrat. That just about sums it up.

First elected to the House in 1976, Gephardt became Majority Leader in 1989 and Minority Leader in 1994. He also ran for president in 1988, and actually won the Iowa caucuses that year. Of all the Democratic candidates, he was the most experienced in electoral politics, and seemed to be the most upstanding. Even the Weekly Standard admired his “nice-guy” image. But these qualities could not even get him second place among Iowans, who obviously were clued into the fact that Gephardt was conducting his campaign like the disco days of 1976 were still raging.

The magnitude of Gephardt’s loss illustrates a lot about the viability of two issues traditionally associated with him and other old-guard Democrats (who are mostly dead or out of office). First, the blind allegiance to Big Labor, and second, Labor’s ugly stepsister, anti-free trade protectionism.  The two make for a raucous two-part harmony — the same old song Gephardt has been singing since the Carter administration. Talk about malaise, people! The fact that he performed so terribly campaigning on those shopworn, paleoliberal issues should convince the remaining candidates that his catastrophic flameout is directly attributable to the fact that Americans simply are not reflexively against free trade, and just do not give a damn about labor anymore. It will be interesting to see whether second-place finisher John Edwards will tone down some of his protectionist rhetoric.

Old institutions — cultural, scientific, or political — die hard. In 1977, just as Gephardt was settling into his first term in the House, architectural critic Charles Jencks proclaimed that the “modern” architecture movement expired on July 15, 1972, the day public housing officials in St. Louis dynamited the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. Pruitt-Igoe was a massive, crime-ridden slum-in-the-sky that defied its idealistic planners and became one of the most appallingly dangerous places to live in the United States. It has since served, rightly or wrongly, as an icon of a flawed philosophy. I will be just as ostentatious and pinpoint the death of old-guard liberal politics — the kowtowing to trade unions, the whipping up of protectionist fervor, and the all the rest — to January 19, 2004, when Dick Gephardt, another failed St. Louis icon, came crashing back down to earth.

Christopher Kilmer, who works at a D.C. think tank, is an independent writer. His Web site is http://www.chriskilmer.com.

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