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Gephardt to Step Down

November 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, joining us from Capitol Hill for a newsmaker interview is the departing House Minority Leader, Democrat Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Welcome to the program, Congressman.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Thank you. Good to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: What went into your decision to give up the leadership at this time?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in our caucus in the last eight years. We had lost the majority in 1994 — lost fifty-three or -four seats in that — had six people switch away from our party after that. So that was the low point.

We’ve come back a lot since then. We’ve won back twelve seats and then five seats and then two seats. This time we didn’t make progress and I’m very disappointed in that, but I’m proud of what our members have done, I’m proud of the work that we’ve done together to try to win back a majority in the House so we can bring a new agenda in the House.

But I decided yesterday that I needed to change — that I needed to change what I was doing — change is good, it’s positive, it’s energizing — and the caucus needed change; they needed new leadership to bring new slants and new views on issues. I think it’s going to be good for everybody and I’m excited about what I’m doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Was it the prospect of facing an election where you might have been opposed that helped speed you to this decision?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: No. I’m confident that, if I had chosen to run, I would have been elected. I’ve had a great relationship with the other members in the caucus. I have treasured every minute that I’ve been in this job.

It has been a wonderful opportunity. But it’s a consuming job, and you’re not only a legislative leader, you’re also a political leader and you’re a message leader, and you’re a human leader of 212 people.

And it takes just an inordinate, consuming amount of time. You don’t have time to step back often enough and look at the long view, look at where the country needs to go and the kind of new thinking that I think we need to bring to our ideas.

And so I want to do some of that. I want to step back and look at other ways that I might be able to advance the values and the agenda I believe in, and I’m sure I’ll find better and good ways to do that. And I can still be very effective in helping this caucus succeed in winning back a new agenda for our House of Representatives.

RAY SUAREZ: I guess it’s important to point out that you are keeping your seat from the St. Louis area in Missouri.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: You bet.

RAY SUAREZ: You talked about having a different vantage point. Does your time in the leadership give you an expanded voice even as you go back to your district seat?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think it will. I think the big thing that I can bring to this is 25 years of experience on all kinds of issues: health care, education, the economy, budgets, war, peace, defense policy.

I started here in 1977 with Jimmy Carter. I’ve been in the Reagan administration, the Bush One administration. I’m proud of what we did with Bill Clinton to get this economy moving. And I’ve been here with President Bush and 9/11 and now the question with Iraq and all the corporate responsibility questions we have.

Let me just give you an example. We failed on health care in 1993 in the early part of the Clinton administration. I think I learned a lot from that, and what I want to do is translate that experience that I think I got from the failure that we had and try to figure out finally how we can get this done. I think we need to get every American covered with health insurance, and I look forward to the opportunity to try to bring that thinking to that issue.

RAY SUAREZ: There have been no shortage of post-mortems since the polls closed on Tuesday night, from pros, from party people, from pundits. What’s your post-mortem view of the Democratic run and why it fell short?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, first, I think all of the discussion and debate is positive. I think it’s important that, whether you win or lose, that you evaluate what you did and you try to do better the next time.

You can always learn from what you did, and we always try to do that. And I think that’ll be a positive thing. I think, in the end, in this election, 9/11, the security issues that legitimately come out of that, the President’s great popularity, really worked together to have the security issues trump the economic issues on which all of our candidates were running.

And I understand why that happened; it is probably a legitimate thing that happened, but that had a big impact. I also think the spending disadvantage that Republican candidates had, had to have an impact, as well. The Republican committees probably raised $200 million more than our campaigns, and that had to have a significant impact on the outcome of a lot of the elections.

RAY SUAREZ: The post-terrorist attack, security issues notwithstanding, many members of your party are saying that, on security, on the economic issues you mentioned, the party was not speaking with one voice, not speaking coherently with a national strategy.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think we did have a national strategy, and I think we did have a good message. And if you had been with me in the 60 campaigns I was in, in the last year for Congress, all of our candidates were talking about the same economic issues.

They were talking about corporate responsibility, pension reform, jobs and wages, Social Security reform. They were talking about a prescription drug program. And their campaign was unified and concerted. I think we did a good job, and I think that these are individual campaigns and individual districts. That’s the way it always is.

We didn’t have a President like the Republicans did, trying to bring a national theme on security or economics in all these districts, and I give the President credit. He was in a lot of districts, and he got a singular message across, and that also had an impact and a positive impact in some of the campaigns.

But before I leave it, this was not a total failure for us. We picked up big governorships in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico and a lot of other states, and we… while we lost ground in the House and in the Senate, it wasn’t a lot of ground, we’re still within striking distance, and I believe we’re going to win these elections two years from now.

RAY SUAREZ: Between now and the swearing in date for the new session, what does the Democratic Party have to do?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think we need to take stock, we need to look back at the electoral process that we just went through, and try to figure out how to do better in all respects. We’ve got to have adequate fund-raising and resources to run good campaigns, we’ve got to have better turnout and grass-roots effort, I’m adamant about this.

We are the diverse party, but we’ve got to get our people to vote in greater numbers. A 40 percent turnout in this election was not adequate. We’ve got to do better. And finally, we’ve got to get some exciting, optimistic, forward-looking ideas out in front of people to excite people to get back involved in political life, to want to participate in voting.

I had voters come up to me before this election and say, “I’m just not going to vote. It’s all so negative, it’s a mess, I don’t want to participate in it.” That’s a bad sign. And I think we can turn that around by getting energetic, exciting, forward-looking issues out in front of people. We can change this country; we can take our government back from the special interests if we get the people to participate in the elections.

RAY SUAREZ: The debate over the future Minority Leader has already begun, Martin Frost of Texas earlier today saying it would be a bad idea for the party to move away from the center and talking about how, in the marginal seats in the swing seats, there has to be a strong centrist message from the Democratic party. Do you agree?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think that all of this debate is good. I think it’s healthy, and I think we’ll continue to have this energetic discussion about issues and where we ought to be. My own view is that we first have to be unified; we’ve got to keep our people unified.

I think we’ve done a good job of that in the past. We built consensus. Sometimes we’ve done it, though, at the price of taking the longer view, and I hope I can help with that in the next two years. I think finally, we can’t move left and we can’t move right. We probably need to move forward.

We need to come with exciting, futuristic, optimistic policies for this country in education, health care, energy, the economy, foreign policy. I think if we come with the right ideas and new thinking with our enduring values, we’re going to have a really good election in two years.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the wire service articles commenting on your leaving the Minority Leader’s post today said that you would spend this time preparing a national run. Is that right?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I haven’t made any decision on anything at all. And one decision I’ve made today is to not stand for leader next week, but I’m excited about the opportunity to step away for some period of time from my day day-to-day responsibilities and bring some hopefully better and good thinking to some of these issues.

There will be other opportunities for public service out here or private activity that would be exciting to me. I’m going to look at all those alternatives, and in the future, when it’s right, I’ll make up my mind about what to do next.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, thanks for being with us.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Thank you.