United States Congressman Richard Andrew Gephardt (born 1941) has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1977 and was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1988. His protectionist campaign theme failed to win him the nomination. In 1989 he became Democratic majority leader in the House.
Richard A. Gephardt, first elected to Congress in 1976 from Missouri's Third Congressional District, epitomized the new breed of Democratic politicians which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. These politicians, often labeled Atari Democrats, sought to wed the traditional party concern for social issues with new technology and fiscal conservatism. Gephardt's record reflects this new political pragmatism, which borrows from both liberal and conservative beliefs. The south St. Louis congressman endorsed constitutional amendments to ban abortion and school bussing; he supported tuition credits for parents of children in private schools, and school prayer; and he opposed gun control legislation. Yet he also supported a freeze on nuclear weapons and led the opposition to the MX missile. He also worked to stop military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980s.
Richard Andrew Gephardt was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 31, 1941, to Louis Andrew and Loreen (Cassell) Gephardt, both the grandchildren of German immigrants. After completing high school in St. Louis, Gephardt enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, majoring in speech and drama. He received a B.S. degree in 1962. He obtained a J.D. degree from the law school at the University of Michigan in 1965. One year later, in August 1966, Gephardt married Jane Ann Byrnes, formerly of Nebraska, whom he had met when both were undergraduates at Northwestern.
Early Political Career
Returning to south St. Louis where he was raised, Gephardt became active in ward politics and in 1971 was elected to the St. Louis board of aldermen. Five years later Gephardt ran for the Third District congressional seat vacated by retiring Congresswoman Leonor Sullivan. The middle-class, predominately white district, composed of Roman Catholic ethnic neighborhoods in south St. Louis, suburbs in St. Louis County, and a section of primarily rural Jefferson County, mirrored his centrist political philosophy. The 35-year-old Gephardt easily defeated his opponent, State Senator Donald Gralicke, in the Democratic primary and took 64 percent of the vote in the general election against his Republican opponent, Joseph Badaracco.
After his arrival in Washington in 1977, Representative Gephardt quickly rose to prominence. Fellow Missouri Congressman Richard Bolling, then chairman of the House Rules Committee, arranged his assignment on the House Ways and Means Committee, a rare honor for a freshman legislator. Two years later Gephardt won a seat on the House Budget Committee. Through service on the Budget Committee Gephardt established his reputation as a fiscal conservative. In 1982 he and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley sponsored the Fair Tax Act, popularly known as the Bradley-Gephardt Bill, which eventually became the Tax Reform Act of 1986. By 1984 Gephardt had joined the "inner circle" of House Democratic leadership with his selection as chairman of their caucus, the fourth-highest post behind speaker, majority leader, and majority whip.
Gephardt also organized attempts to reestablish the centrist position in the national Democratic Party following presidential party nominee Walter Mondale's overwhelming defeat by President Ronald Reagan in the 1984 campaign. In 1985 he announced the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council, composed of younger Democrats from the South and West including Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and Governors Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Charles S. Robb of Virginia.
The Gephardt Amendment
Gephardt's best-known initiative was the Gephardt amendment, which directed the federal government to identify those nations with large trade surpluses with the United States and take action against any country that has achieved its advantage by unfair practices. The amendment called for negotiation, but if that failed, the president would be required to impose tariffs and take other punitive action that would reduce the trading partner's surplus by 10 percent per year. The Gephardt amendment proved particularly popular among blue collar workers threatened by the loss of employment in the automobile and steel industries and among Americans dissatisfied with the rapid rise of Japanese economic power. The amendment passed in the House by a four-vote margin and was added to the Omnibus Trade Bill of 1987. The Senate, however, rejected the controversial proposal aided by President Ronald Reagan's threat to veto the measure if it reached his desk.
Ran For the Presidential Nomination
Riding on the popularity of his amendment and his prestige as chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Gephardt on February 23, 1987, became the first Democrat to declare his candidacy for the 1988 presidential nomination. In a 30-minute speech in St. Louis he established his campaign theme when he declared before the audience, "The next president must be as tough in negotiating the terms of trade as this president has been in negotiating with the Russians." When reminded that Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale came under sharp attack in the 1984 campaign for taking a protectionist stance, Gephardt replied, "The facts have changed. Mondale was talking about an issue that was about to happen. Now it has happened."
Gephardt plunged energetically into the race, particularly in the crucial Iowa caucus campaign. After months of dogged determination and some good fortune following the political demise of former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, Gephardt won the caucus contest on February 8, 1988. He then emerged as the frontrunner until his defeat by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the New Hampshire primary one week later. Undaunted, Gephardt continued his campaign, winning the South Dakota primary on February 23 and hoping for a breakthrough on "Super Tuesday," the March 8 primary held simultaneously in 20 states. He won only in Missouri, his home state. Hoping to capitalize on the disaffection of blue collar automobile workers because of Japanese competition, the faltering and nearly broke Gephardt campaign focused all of its remaining energy on the March 23 Michigan primary. Rev. Jesse Jackson, however, staged a stunning upset, winning 53 percent of the vote; Dukakis got 29 percent, and Gephardt only 13 percent. Two days later Gephardt withdrew from the race.
Became House Majority Leader
Easily reelected to his congressional seat in 1988, Gephardt, who had campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan as the populist outsider, quickly resumed his rapid ascent in the House Democratic leadership hierarchy. In 1989 he succeeded Congressman Thomas Foley to become House majority leader. In that role Gephardt continued to garner public attention with his spirited attacks on the Bush administration. In March 1990, for example, Gephardt criticized what he termed President Bush's failure to capitalize on the political changes sweeping across Eastern Europe. Unveiling a Democratic alternative on Eastern Europe, Gephardt, in a speech before the Center for National Policy, outlined a broad initiative to support the reforms of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev through increased aid to emerging Eastern Bloc democracies and through a proposal to send U.S. food aid to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Gephardt continued to espouse the theme of economic nationalism, which was the center of his unsuccessful presidential campaign. However, he began to link trade policy with incentives to improve American education and the quality of American manufactured products.
Gephardt did not make another bid for the presidency in 1992. He often bumped heads with President Clinton. He opposed Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because he believed it exported U.S. jobs overseas. In 1994 when Republicans became House majority, Gephardt was elected minority leader. According to the New York Times, Gephardt said he hoped to develop "a strategy to represent the workers, the middle-income families, the poor families of this country." That year he announced a middle-class tax cut and, later, a plan to simplify tax rates. Both announcements came days before Clinton was to reveal his own plans for similar ideas. These actions were a source of friction between Clinton and Gephardt.
Further Reading on Richard Andrew Gephardt
No book-length biographies currently exist on Richard Gephardt. However, brief discussions of his life and political accomplishments can be found in H. Rinie, "The Gephardt File: Rebel Without A Cause," U.S. News and World Report (February 8, 1988); Elizabeth Drew, Election Journal: Political Events of 1987-1988 (1989); and the New York Times Biographical Service, Vol. 18 (February 1987). See also Morton Kondracke, "Man for All Seasons," The New Republic (July 3, 1989) and the Los Angeles Times (March 8, 1990). For Gephardt's vision for the Democratic Party, see David Corn, "Beyond 'Too Far,"' The Nation (April 10, 1995). Information about the Gephardt/Clinton clash over NAFTA is in Amy Borrus, "The Latest Trade War: Democrat vs. Democrat," Business Week (March 10, 1997)