Too Much Dick

Even a bad primary weeds out the losers


It took the voters of Iowa to make me realize what a heroic figure Richard Gephardt truly is. Until last night I had considered the beetle-browed congressman from the Show Me State a distillation of the many vices career politicians are heir to. It was only after his crushing, humiliating defeat in what supporters and commentators with expansive definitions of the Midwestern mindset had described as his home country that Gephardt began to receive the praise he apparently deserves. Erstwhile rivals and televised talking heads joined in singing his fundamental decency, his commitment to principle, his dedication to a strong national defense, his iron constitution, and his exquisite series of duets with Peabo Bryson in the 1980s. Hearing all the encomia, you might have wondered why Gephardt did so poorly in the vote.

Performing such obsequies is, of course, part of the normal coping process after you've seen a political hack eviscerated in front of your eyes. The real Gephardt was well past his shelf life, and his bold ideas for America could only please those who regard with less than unmingled horror such skylarks as a nationwide gravy train for public school teachers, federal policing of "hate crimes," an international minimum wage enforced by UN Blue Helmets, and tariffs on everything from your radio to your underpants. It's hard, if not impossible, to think of a single time in his career that Gephardt stood up boldly for principle, or for anything. He's uninspiring in person, uncharismatic in the field, scrupulously dull in speech. Even the unprepossessing Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD), who had the discretion to sit this presidential race out, looked more courageous back in 2001, when the Senate (but not the House) braved anthrax in order to stay in session and pass hastily assembled, largely unread legislation with far-reaching consequences. In the end, Gephardt didn't even suffer the most memorable defeat in Iowa: That honor is reserved for former Vermont governor Howard Dean, whose febrile concession speech is already being edited and clipped by opponents and radio wags into a campaign version of the Hitler jig.

I come not to bury Gephardt (tempting as that is) but to praise the Iowa voters, and to admit that there may be some value yet in an arcane primary system that lets secondary states set the course for the nation. Any system that performs early triage on a Gephardt can't be all bad. The Iowa Caucus is a famously unreliable indicator of future success—Gephardt himself took the Hawkeye State in 1988, before going on to lose to the presidential candidate now known as "Kakdukis." It's frequently objected that the baroque caucus/primary patchwork points up the crabbed idiosyncrasies of the political system, rather than smoothing them over. This is in fact the best feature of the primary system. By courting chaos, the primaries provide little guidance about who the strong candidates or potential winners will be. But they're ruthlessly efficient when it comes to weeding out the jokers.

Thus, yesterday's results may not bode so well for the Democrats. Spokespeople for all the campaigns gushed about the day's high turnout and bustling activity among the Democratic faithful, but this tells only half the story. Democratic loyalists hate President George W. Bush like poison, and can be expected to turn out on that basis alone. On the surface, a more or less guaranteed turnout is good news, because it allows the party to eschew a compelling but divisive firebrand like Dean in favor of more acceptable mainstream picks like retired General Wesley Clark or Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Less hopeful is what the defeat says about the Democratic alternatives. Gephardt's (and Dean's) main distinguishing characteristic was a promise to repeal President Bush's tax cuts. Even in Iowa, a recipient in good standing of federal welfare, the idea of getting rid of the only improvement most Americans have seen in their lives over the past three years has been rejected; we search in vain for recent historical examples of candidates who won promising higher taxes for everybody.

The problem is where we go from there. On the other major issue of the day—the war in Iraq—Dean alone has the credibility of a consistent stand, and it's not at all clear that that stand will prove popular in November. The rest of the candidates (and with the end of Gephardt, we are now back to the magic number of Seven Dwarfs) rise in electability the more they resemble George W. Bush. But nobody (with the possible exception of underutilized actor Timothy Bottoms) resembles Bush more than Bush himself, so why not just vote for him?

In the weeks and months to come, the dwindling fellowship of Democratic hopefuls will go on to other states (or, as Howard Dean would bellow, to "South Carolina! And Oklahoma! And Arizona! And North Dakota! And New Mexico!"), where their other grand differences with the President will be whittled down to a nub. By the time of the Democratic convention, the resulting candidate will most likely look so much like Bush that we may be tempted just to suspend the election (a prospect the Bush White House has no doubt been considering for some time anyway).

As for Gephardt, it's not clear he had the support of even his own campaign workers. If he stood out for anything, it was for his ability to combine the worst aspects of both parties: an endlessly-expanding welfare state, a homeland security database bloated with ever more intrusive information on the citizenry, a perpetual state of war, and expanded handouts for idle farmers, union leaders, teachers, and other assorted layabouts. Good riddance.