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The Ways to Washington Via Iowa

February 07, 1988|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kans.)--the front-runners in Iowa polls on the eve of that state's critical presidential caucuses--share much in common.

Although they belong to different parties, both have won the respect of colleagues while rising to leadership posts in Congress. As a Capitol insider, each is well-versed in the details of federal spending and taxes and is a skillful craftsman of legislative coalitions. And each is a tireless campaigner who appears rejuvenated by the press of a voter's handshake.

But their contrasting campaign styles in the days before the Iowa vote offer an interesting view of the different routes to the presidency. Gephardt chartered a planeload of 42 of his House Democratic colleagues to keynote rallies in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids before they fanned across Iowa to campaign for him. Dole, on the other hand, was a first-day witness as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee launched hearings on the nuclear-arms treaty signed in December by President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev; unlike Gephardt, who missed 82% of last year's House votes, Dole has kept a strong attendance record on the Senate floor.

Another notable difference: Gephardt is a hot number among the Democratic candidates at the moment and may soar in national publicity and polls if he wins convincingly in Iowa tomorrow. But Dole's campaign appears listless and seemingly outmatched by the overwhelming organizational strength of Vice President George Bush.

Their fates may change overnight, of course. But this year's campaign, so far, is a reminder of the great difference between winning elections and governing. This stark conflict poses real problems for a member of Congress seeking the presidency, because the skills required to succeed legislatively bear little direct relevance to garnering votes in presidential caucuses and primaries.

Legislative success typically demands a precise response to a definite problem and the ability to win support from a relatively small number of fellow lawmakers. In a presidential campaign, the premium is placed on a well-crafted message and legions of grass-roots supporters willing to join a crusade. Take the Gephardt example. After joining the House in 1977, he quickly earned a reputation for his mastery of issues and his painstaking ability to spend as many hours or days as needed to build a majority. Although he has been a leading sponsor of major proposals to shape these debates, such as health-care and tax reform, he has gained more acclaim for steering his party to a consensus position that most Democrats could support. Those skills helped him to win unopposed election in 1984 as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Compare that style with the much different approach that has propelled Gephardt to the front ranks of presidential contenders: He has pushed a major international-trade proposal that his opponents label "protectionist." His proposal to raise farmers' income by forcing up consumer prices has generated considerable appeal in rural Iowa, but Gephardt spends less time discussing it in other states, like New Hampshire. While gaining support from vital labor and farm groups, he has used establishment-bashing rhetoric to attack corporate leaders and editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal, two groups that curry little sympathy among Democratic voters. In the words of a recent Newsweek report, Gephardt "dares to pander."

Meanwhile, Dole has dwelt on his experience as GOP leader and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, but his campaign pitch has been short on new proposals or a compelling message. His "vision" is the artfully vague pledge of strong leadership to deal with the nation's tough problems, especially the federal deficit. The prototypical Washington insider, Dole last week personally attacked Bush for not for not understanding how Congress operates and for not respecting campaign protocol.

Voters have heard relatively little from Gephardt or Dole about the details of their past legislative efforts. In part, that may be because such tales are too complex or dull. More to the point, however, nearly any action that either has taken probably offended some important group. In contrast to Dole, whose speeches sometimes sound like a review of the Senate's agenda, Gephardt makes an effort to strike broad themes that responds to public attitudes.

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