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Newsmaker: Richard Gephardt

May 29, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to the Newsmaker interview with Congressman Gephardt. I talked with him earlier this evening. Congressman Gephardt, welcome.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you the same question President Clinton was asked today. Who represents the hearts and minds of the Democratic Party, he or you?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I don’t think that that’s the right question. I think we agree on the vast majority of issues, as he said. We’ve been together on most of the issues that have come before the Congress. The President and I see most issues eye to eye. No two individuals in any party ever agree on every issue, and we’ve had disagreements in the past on trade, on NAFTA, now on China MFN. Last year, I voted against MFN for China, so this is not a new issue for us. But, you know, reasonable people can disagree. I respect his opinion. I respect the stand he’s taken on issues. We just don’t agree on this. We can work our way through this disagreement, and we’re going to announce together a re-presentation of the Families First agenda we had last year, with some new elements in it. And that, I think, will show the great unity that I believe exists in the Democratic Party.

JIM LEHRER: But for those who are watching and listening and what to know which is the position of the Democratic Party on these two major issues: the balanced budget agreement and MFN, which is–which is the Democratic Party’s position?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: You know, I think there are some Democrats, the majority, who agreed with the President, that the budget deal was a good one and should be supported. Some of us, a minority of Democrats, felt differently. And for some of us, you know, I was in the Congress in 1981 when we voted for a budget. I didn’t vote for it at the time. But there was a tax bill in that budget that I think is very reminiscent of the tax bill that we’re looking at now. And I voted for that. It was one of the worst votes I’ve ever made since I’ve been in the Congress. It exploded the deficit. It’s taken us 17 years to get over that tax bill and a lot of tough Democratic positions on reducing the deficit, and I don’t want to do that again. I think it’s unfair. I don’t think this budget makes the necessary investments we need in the future of the country, and I don’t think there are adequate safeguards in it to see that the deficit doesn’t explode again. So reasonable people come to a different conclusion. I respect the President’s effort to get the budget balanced. He’s done more than most Republicans to get it balanced, and I think he’s done what he thinks is right.

JIM LEHRER: Were you disappointed that an overwhelming majority of your House colleagues in the Democratic Party went with him, rather than you?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: No. I told my colleagues in the caucus that on an issue this important, this long in running because you’re voting for a five and a ten year budget here, that everyone should do what they believe is right in their heart and mind. And I think that’s what Democrats did. And I believe that you could come to the conclusion that given all the alternatives that the budget was worth supporting; I could not do that. I cannot vote for a budget where over half the tax cuts goes to families who make over $100,000 a year. That’s what I think this tax bill will be. Now it is true; you can vote for the budget and against the tax bill, but I don’t want to do that. In 1981, I voted against the budget and for the tax bill. If I’m going to be against this tax bill–and I suspect I will be–I don’t want to vote for the budget that encompasses this kind of a tax bill, and I also believe that it’s really important that we invest in education, that we have, for instance, Head Start for every child who needs it. I think we ought to have Head Start for children zero to three. That is not in this budget; I think it should be. This is the budget for the next five years. I want Head Start in it.

JIM LEHRER: So this was a matter of personal principle to you, not party leadership, is that right?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, that’s right. You know, I think that an issue like this–and there are other issues–people again in the same party come to different conclusions. You’ve got to vote for what you believe in your heart and mind is the right thing to do.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some of the punditry has centered on this–the possibility of your running for President in the year 2000. Does that play any part in your decision making on this?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: It doesn’t, and I think it’s really almost ridiculous to be having a discussion now about what’s going to happen in the year 2000. First of all, I got elected here in the third district in Missouri to represent my constituents now on issues that are in front of us in the country and in the third district in Missouri, and I’m trying to do that, and I’ve focused on that. That’s my main responsibility. Secondly, as a party leader in the House, I’ve also focused on trying to win a majority in the House in 1998. That’s the election that’s in front of us. I think it’s entirely counterproductive to be looking out three and a half years from now and worrying about something that may or may not happen. I have made no decision on that and won’t for a long time. So to have all of this forced into every issue that we’re talking about I think is counterproductive and I don’t think gives the necessary importance that we ought to be giving to these very important issues that are in front of us right now. Who knows where we’re all going to be three and a half years from now?

JIM LEHRER: Well, just concentrating on ’98, do you believe the positions you took are the politically saleable positions for the Democratic Party in ’98?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think for some people it is. I would never try to speak for all Democrats. I would never try to say that the positions that I believe are right are the positions that all other Democrats ought to take. I think what we have to do is try to find as many common positions as we can, but most of all we have to address things again from what in our own heart and mind is the right thing for our constituents, the right thing for the country, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I would remind you that we have an agenda we call Families First that House Democrats and Senate Democrats ran on in 1996. It was much like the President’s platform and agenda in 1996. And it’s an agenda we’re proud of. It’s about the kitchen table everyday problems American families face: health care, education, jobs, crime, pensions. You know, if you went out in my district door to door, as I often do here in St. Louis, those are the issues people would talk to you about. And it’s a very different agenda than the Republican agenda, the Contract With America that they talked so much about in 1994 and 1996.

JIM LEHRER: Was it difficult for you, as the Democratic leader of the House, to make such public breaks with the President on major issues like this? Was it difficult just on that–on those grounds alone?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, you know, there have been some times–the vast minority of times–that I have disagreed with the President. I’m sure that other Democrats have from time to time disagreed with the President on important issues. In 1993, I disagreed with him on the North American Free Trade Agreement, and I argued strongly for my position. The President argued strongly for his position. And at the end of the day his position won; mine lost. But I thought the argument was healthy; I thought the disagreement was well presented on both sides in a democracy, whether the disagreement is between parties and within a party, I think that’s what we’re supposed to do.

The public deserves an airing of issues like this. I think you can disagree with someone and still deeply respect them and like them, as I like the President and respect the President. It doesn’t mean that we’re not on the same wave length on most things. I talk to him two and three times a week. I believe he’s trying to do his best to improve the country and do the right things for the country. I don’t believe for a moment that his position on the budget or on NAFTA or on China, Most Favored Nation, means that he’s not doing the best he possibly can for the country. We just disagree on these couple of issues. I think it’s healthy to express this disagreement. I don’t know if I’m right. I try to find the truth as best I can. There’s a scripture in the Bible that says we all see through a glass darkly–and, you know, as I said, in 1981, I made a vote on a tax bill. We had tried an alternative; we lost, and it was–the only tax bill that was left–I decided we needed a tax cut. I voted for it. In retrospect, it wasn’t the right vote. It didn’t turn out the way I hoped it would turn out. And the same thing with many of these issues. I may not be entirely right. I may be proven wrong by what happens, but in my heart and mind this is what I think is best for the people I represent and for the country.

JIM LEHRER: The pundits, as you know–had a field day about this–one of the other things they’ve said is you represent the old-fashioned Democratic Party and you’re trying to pull it back from the center into the right, where President Clinton is trying to take it or has taken it. What do you think about that sort of thing?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, you know, these kind of sweeping statements I think are really misleading and not in touch with reality. I’ve said many times that we’re all new Democrats now, and by that I mean all of us have an obligation, as Democrats who believe in certain values and beliefs and principles that I think are rooted in our party and that are shared by all Democrats, it is our job to translate those values and beliefs in today’s circumstances. Now, there are a lot of circumstances. Trade, there’s a whole variety of issues. I believe that the Democrat rooted in Democratic belief, in value and tradition can reach the conclusion that I’ve reached on China MFN. By the same token, I think another Democrat can have a different translation of those values in today’s circumstances. I don’t think that one is a new Democrat and one is an old Democrat. I think these are classifications that some in the media use to try to pigeonhole people into some kind of sweeping classification. I think when you get it into reality it doesn’t mean anything. I think all of us are struggling. The President is struggling; I’m struggling; every other Democrat I hope is struggling to try to translate what I believe are our values into these circumstances. I think that’s what Franklin Roosevelt did in his time, and I think that’s what Jack Kennedy did in his time. Harry Truman did it in his time. That’s what we ought to do. And, you know, later history will judge whether or not we made the right judgment.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe the next major issue that your colleagues, you and your colleagues will have to vote on is the China MFN thing? Do you think the Democrats will go with you or the President on that?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I don’t know, and I haven’t surveyed it, and I’m not going to go, you know, try to talk people into my position. Again, I think most members have dealt with this. They know the issue, and they can reach their own conclusion. Some people may change their minds from where they’ve been in the past. For me, this issue is one that is very important for our country in the future. I think that we must stand for human rights all over the globe. And we must stand for getting our workers and businesses on a level playing field with other countries. And I think right now we’re not on that level playing field with China. When you have prison labor making goods that come to the United States, when you have people being denied their human rights, freedom of speech, freedom to petition their own government, freedom to be free of being imprisoned against their will for doing nothing, then I think it is impossible to have a normal trading relationship with a country that behaves in that way. In the past, with countries like South Africa, we’ve taken a very strong position and said, no, we’re not going to trade with countries like that until there are changes in the right direction. I think that’s what we must do with China. I think enough is enough. We have tried a policy of just talking with them; we haven’t gotten results. I think we can do better.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Congressman Gephardt, thank you very much.