Gephardt Is Not Running. Well, Not Exactly

It is a testament to the way things have been turned upside down on Capitol Hill that the leader who's keeping the White House off balance the most is not House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. It's the House Democratic leader, Richard A. Gephardt, who's making a career out of upstaging President Clinton in a bid for the affections of America's working class.

Although he praises Clinton for doing "a good job," Gephardt has rarely missed a chance to pounce while the President pondered. He preempted the White House with his version of a middle-class tax cut, seized upon the flat-tax concept, and even delivered his own State of the Union address that replaced Clinton's "Middle Class Bill of Rights" with a worker-sensitive "Code of Conduct" for U.S. corporations. No wonder Clintonites are sweating. With their man moving to the right, they see Gephardt grabbing the Democratic Party's working-class core, a springboard for a '96 Presidential run.

NO MOUTHPIECE. Gephardt insists he's not trying to undermine Clinton. But despite his leadership post, he won't be a mouthpiece. "It's not my job to say `absolutely' to each and every thing the President comes out with," he says. Party insiders believe Gephardt, a failed 1988 White House aspirant, when he flatly denies that he will challenge Clinton for the party's nomination. So what's he up to?

Gephardt has three goals. He wants to push Clinton toward a populist agenda that portrays Democrats as defenders of the middle class and Republicans as pawns of the rich. He's seeking an independent platform for Democrats who fear they'll be dragged down with a Clinton collapse in '96. And he's keeping a White House run in his sights--next year, if Clinton bows out, or later. "You're seeing a very shrewd, experienced Presidential candidate position himself in case there's an opportunity," says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde. "On a crass political level, he wants to be first in line."

But with Clinton fighting to keep his job, Gephardt's priority for now is to push the President toward more liberal economic policies. He helped shape Clinton's proposal to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour. When White House rhetoric strays to New Democrat dogma about reinventing government and communal responsibility, Gephardt grows impatient: "I'm not one who believes you need to make dramatic downsizing in government."

Instead, he wants to focus on a brand of economics often dismissed by Republicans as recycled "class warfare." Gephardt countered a GOP flat-tax plan with a "flatter tax" that has a 10% rate for the middle class and higher brackets for Corporate America. And in a recent speech to the liberal Economic Policy Institute, he exhorted companies to share more power and profits with productive workers. "You don't have to graduate from Harvard business school to figure this out," he says. His models of company-worker cooperation include Saturn, Anheuser-Busch, Ben & Jerry's, Motorola, Starbucks, Magma Copper, Harman International, and Inland Steel.

Gephardt's high-profile freelancing may irk Clinton less than Al Gore, a bitter 1988 Presidential campaign rival who's trying to stake out the party's right flank. But party liberals think Clinton can only gain. "Gephardt's a very effective populist spokesman," says Democratic consultant Vic Fingerhut. "As more people see Democrats representing their interests, Clinton's numbers will go up, too."

Gephardt is on a political tightrope. The danger of his "I'm-on-your-side" shtick--as the GOP notes--is that it will echo class-warfare appeals that flopped in the Reagan era. But he keeps plugging. Better to start a Presidential bid with a small but solid base than none at all. Just ask Bill Clinton.