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Risking a Lot, Winning a Little

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Richard Gephardt used to hate the House of Representatives. It was disorganized, ineffective, boring. Even if you spent weeks whipping members into voting your way, the President could flush your work with a simple veto. And anyway, Gephardt wanted to be President. His mom Loreen has always said the Lord could open doors for him, maybe even the one to the Oval Office. But if God has a bigger plan for Dick Gephardt, he might want to unveil it now, before the minority leader returns to what could be the least effective, most disorganized chamber ever.

Gephardt had hoped to return in January to run the place as Speaker. He sacrificed a lot in his effort to win the House for his party: to unify the ideologically diverse Democratic ranks, Gephardt downplayed his opposition to free-trade pacts without protections for labor, an issue dear to the Missourian's heart for years as he watched manufacturing jobs flee the Midwest. On corporate tax breaks, he started sounding like a Chamber of Commerce lackey in order to raise millions for his party from the technology industry. And he passed on running for President.

The payback? His struggle to win the House failed by a few thousand votes in a handful of districts. Under George W. Bush, he could be all but irrelevant, as the G.O.P. President ignores the Democratic leadership and personally lobbies conservative Democrats on tight votes. Under Al Gore, Gephardt would be a bigger legislative player but with little prospect for major accomplishments. What's more, if Gore winds up in the White House, Gephardt's chances of seeking the presidency would slip away again, perhaps until 2008, when he turns 67.

Small wonder rumors surfaced that Gephardt would give up the minority leader's thankless job. Maybe he could better push his pet issues as a backbencher. Maybe, if Bush won, he could start spending lots of time in Iowa, where he won the presidential caucuses in 1988, in preparation for another White House bid in 2004. But the day after the election, Gephardt confirmed he would seek the leader's post again and, after months of being a bulldog, started acting like a leader. He telephoned Speaker Dennis Hastert, with whom he had scarcely talked since the two fought early this year about who should be House chaplain, and invited the Illinois Republican to lunch. "I know we've had our differences, and I want it to get better," Gephardt said, and Hastert agreed. Gephardt told TIME that the message to Congress from Tuesday's hairbreadth election was, "We want you to get in the middle and get things done."

Democrats of all stripes admire Gephardt for his ability to communicate with both liberals and moderates and then quell their spats. But the balancing act may get tougher: of the 10 seats that Democrats took from Republicans, most will be held by conservatives like Mike Ross of Arkansas and right-of-center moderates like Rick Larsen of Washington State. What's more, with a large number of aging Democratic Congressmen nearing retirement, Gephardt will have to take the lead in recruiting new candidates to replace them. In other words, a guy who has so far been thwarted from two ambitions--the presidency and the speakership--will return to worrying mostly about other people's elections.

--By John Cloud/Washington


Cover Date: November 20, 2000



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