Richard Gephardt Re-emerges As a Man of Ideas

FIFTEEN months ago then-presidential candidate Richard Gephardt was riding high, poised to win the Democratic Party's caucus in Iowa. It was the first stage toward a presidential nomination. But after that initial victory the Missouri congressman's candidacy began to slip, and the nomination ultimately went elsewhere.

Now Representative Gephardt is reemerging on the national scene. This week he offered his own ideas on several national issues including trade, budget, education, gasoline tax, and the current hot question - whether the United States and Japan should jointly develop a new fighter plane. President Bush says yes. Gephardt says no. The President says that the agreement will protect both US jobs and advanced technology. The Missouri congressman says that both will be jeopardized.

In the process of all this activity Gephardt winds up sounding like a man who might very well try again to snare the brass ring of American politics. In a breakfast meeting with reporters he passed up the opportunity to deny, as defeated presidential candidates often do, that he would run again.

``I have no idea of what I will do in the future,'' he says. He then recounts the congressional activities he enjoys.

At the same time he insists that Congress, with its 535 members, cannot set the national agenda. Only a president can do that.

``We have only one leader in this country, and that is the President. The President is the agenda setter,'' he says.

But Mr. Bush is a reactive President, and isn't setting forth an agenda, he says. Bush instead ``should use the stable bully pulpit of the presidency to talk to the American people,'' in order to galvanize them to solve looming problems. What's most needed now from the President, he says, is to provide a ``coherent vision [of the future] that the American people can understand and embrace.''

By contrast Gephardt presents himself as a man with ideas. This week he says he will introduce an alternative budget. Its key will be raising more revenue by a tax on imported oil. Gephardt proposes that this additional money be put into meeting several social needs. Such needs include increasing federal funding for research and development, and preventing new cuts in medicare medical assistance to the elderly.

Can he get Congress to approve such an alternative budget, keyed of all things to the dreaded ``T'' word - taxes? ``I'll doubt that I'll pass it,'' he says. Most Washington observers are certain that he won't. But merely offering his ideas has benefits, he says. It gets Americans thinking about their future. It might also get them thinking about a certain Missouri congressman when presidential primary season rolls around three years hence.

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