DES MOINES — Gary Hart sought to legitimize his return to the Democratic presidential race by asserting that he was coming back to offer the kind of "new ideas" that his six rivals had failed to provide while he was away.
That did not sit very well with the other Democratic candidates, some of whom quickly pointed out that many of Hart's ideas are not so new anymore--not very different, in fact, from a wealth of proposals fully explored throughout this year's campaign.
"I have the power of ideas, and I can govern this country," Hart said in announcing his Dec. 15 re-entry into the presidential race.
"By adding the issues of economic restructuring, military reform, and enlightened engagement (in foreign policy) to this debate . . . and (by appealing) to voters that may not be affiliated now with any other candidates . . . I only hope to strengthen this party," he added later on ABC-TV's "Nightline."
"That is the beef; that is what my candidacy is all about."
But while some of Hart's most interesting ideas and programs may have been novel in 1984, they have now largely become part of the mainstream wisdom in the Democratic Party, and among many of his rivals in the Democratic presidential race of 1987-1988.
"You have to say there has been a substantial convergence around certain ideas, like military reform, that he put forward in 1983 and early 1984," noted William Galston, issues director for Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign and now a public policy analyst at the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies in Washington. "So much of what he has talked about has become part of the conventional parlance in the party."
Vow Seen Ringing Hollow
So while Hart's claim that he only wants to raise the level of debate in the Democratic race may have been a convenient excuse for a frustrated man to resurrect his dream of running for President, to his competitors his vow to inject new ideas into the campaign rang a bit hollow.
Indeed, Hart can no longer lay sole claim to the "candidate of ideas" title he coveted so much during his earlier campaigns. During the seven months that Hart was out of the race, a new candidate of ideas clearly emerged in the Democratic field--former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt.
Now, instead of Hart, it is Babbitt who is winning praise from the nation's news media and political pundits for offering bold, if sometimes unpopular, "new ideas." It is Babbitt, for example, who dares to be the only candidate to propose a massive tax hike to reduce the federal deficit.
Standing Still Rock-Bottom
The attention he has gained has yet to be matched by any improvement in his rock-bottom standing in most polls, but even with Hart back in the race, Babbitt continues to get credit for taking the lead on the key economic issues in the campaign, with his call for a huge national sales tax that would raise $40 billion to $50 billion in annual revenues, and equal and simultaneous spending cuts to reduce the deficit.
Although "few of the candidates give much detail on how they plan to make major progress against the deficit . . . Babbitt has given the fullest description," the Wall Street Journal said last week. "But the bold plan hasn't done much to raise Mr. Babbitt in the polls," the paper added in its closely read, front-page column called The Outlook.
The New York Times, in a front-page story the same day, said: "With the exception of Bruce Babbitt . . . the Democrats offer no clear prescriptions for solving the problem" of the federal deficit.
Hart Credits Babbitt
Even Hart gives Babbitt credit for being the only candidate--besides himself--willing to offer a realistic plan to cut the deficit.
"On this (the deficit), I will side with Gov. Babbitt, who has had the courage to say that we can't achieve what most Americans want, and that's reduced deficits without increased revenues," Hart said on "Nightline."
But Hart actually offers a far more cautious approach to the budget deficit than Babbitt, even while he criticizes the other candidates for their failure to follow Babbitt's leadership on the issue. When he re-entered the campaign, he called for an oil-import fee and excise taxes on luxury items, modest revenue-raising proposals that have already gained strong support among many of the other Democratic candidates.
So it was no accident that Babbitt was among the most outraged candidates when Hart said he was returning to the race to fill the vacuum of ideas.
'A Tone of Arrogance'
"If Mr. Hart thinks he owns the franchise on new ideas in America, he's wrong. If he thinks the American people or the other candidates are waiting to be educated by him, he's kidding himself," Babbitt said. "There is, to put it bluntly, a disturbing tone of arrogance in Gary Hart's rationale for re-entering the race. He says he got out because of the failures of the media, and that he's getting back in because of the failures of the other candidates. Well, he's dead wrong on both counts."