Would Gephardt have won ?
Most of the post-election discussion I’ve seen has focused on the impact of religion, and quite a few commentators have suggested that the Democrats need to shift their policies to appeal more to religiously-motivated voters. This approach would entail some fairly substantial compromises in the search for marginal votes.
If we’re the mood for pragmatic populism, there’s a policy option that might well have delivered the Democrats the election, without the risk of fracturing the Democratic base as an appeal to the religious right would have done. That option is protectionism, of the kind espoused during the campaign by Gephardt. Gephardt had his electoral problems, but I think he could have carried Ohio and his home state of Missouri, as well as having a good chance in West Virginia and even Indiana. He might have lost some coastal states but overall he would have had a better chance of a majority in both the popular vote and the electoral college.
I don’t think protectionist policies are beneficial or even particularly effective, but I don’t share the quasi-religious abhorrence of tariffs and other trade restrictions many economists have had drilled into them from their earliest youth. In the current environment, the big threat to the world economy isn’t the possibility of a trade war, but the danger that the imbalances created by the US trade and budget deficits will bring the whole system crashing down. Unlike Kerry, Gephardt favored the complete repeal of the Bush tax cuts, the crucial first step towards a resolution of the imbalances. This position would have been bitterly attacked by the Republicans, but those attacks would have shifted the ground to the economy, the issue where Bush was weakest.
There are good arguments against going in this direction. It would certainly have cost the Democrats a lot of support among the policy elite, who backed Kerry almost uniformly, for what that was worth. But this is a good time to take a clear-eyed look at all the options, rather than focusing exclusively on the first one that catches our attention. If it’s necessary to compromise in order to win, religiously-motivated voters aren’t the only fish in the sea.
fn1. Kerry tilted in this direction, but not enough to have much of an impact, favorable or otherwise.
fn2. Even in the Great Depression, the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 was only a secondary factor, at most. Competitive devaluations in other countries had much the same effect. The central cause was the failure of the financial system.