Ballot Box

The Worst of Dick Gephardt

A troubling tale from his past. Is it true?

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, and claims to fame. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his worst. Here’s the one told by critics of Dick Gephardt—and what they leave out.

Charge: The last time he ran for president, Gephardt blamed American economic woes on Japan and South Korea, skirting the edge of xenophobia. In 1987, he introduced the Gephardt Amendment, which would penalize countries deemed guilty of engaging in illegal trade practices and running up big trade surpluses with the United States. In effect, the amendment targeted Japan. In 1988, Gephardt focused his presidential campaign on trade policy, specifically with Japan and South Korea. He won the Iowa caucuses with an ad that accused “the Korean government” of using taxes and tariffs to inflate the price of a $10,000 Chrysler K-Car to $48,000 in South Korea. (Independent estimates put the figure at $30,000, not $48,000.) The ad said Gephardt was “tired of hearing American workers blamed” for U.S. export woes and concluded that if “the Koreans” refused to drop their trade barriers, he would retaliate in kind: “They’ll know that we’ll still honor our treaties to defend them—because that’s the kind of country we are. But they’ll also be left asking themselves: How many Americans are going to pay $48,000 for one of their Hyundais?”

In March 1988, Gephardt appeared with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., before a crowd of Michigan steelworkers who supplied the U.S. auto industry. Dingell told the crowd, “You still can’t sell steel in Japan and they’re still dumping steel over here. They sell below cost, they break our copyright laws, they break our patent laws, they dump, they target our industries and they’ve got a plan that all of you are going to be working for Japan Inc.” According to the Chicago Tribune, “With that as a curtain-raiser, Gephardt moved in with his pitch” about stopping the loss of American jobs.

Defense: The only foreign governments Gephardt criticized were those that violated his stated principles of fair trade. Furthermore, he was just as emphatic about lowering trade barriers abroad as he was about raising barriers at home in retaliation. The barriers he complained about were real, as was the trade deficit with Japan. Even if his $48,000 figure was exaggerated, South Korean taxes and tariffs did make a K-Car cost $10,000 more than a Hyundai in South Korea. And while some of Gephardt’s supporters may have seen his indictments of Japan and South Korea in racial terms, there is no record of his saying anything more than his argument about economic fairness entailed. And in the 2004 campaign, Gephardt is asking Americans to support an international minimum wage to raise living standards in other countries.