Ballot Box

The Flip-Flops of Dick Gephardt

What he said then. What he says now. What happened.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, and worst moments. This series assesses the candidates’ purported flip-flops. Here are two switches commonly attributed to Dick Gephardt—and the context his critics leave out.

Flip: In 1977, Gephardt, then a freshman congressman, endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. He proclaimed, “Life is the division of human cells, a process which begins at conception.”

Flop: In 1986, Gephardt told a Missouri pro-life organization that he had changed his mind and would support abortion rights.

Context: In January 2003, Gephardt explained, “I was raised in a working class family of Baptist faith, and I went to college on a church scholarship where early teachings were reinforced. Abortion was wrong, I was taught. … [During] my first decade in Congress, my eyes were opened; opened by friends and by colleagues and by strangers, by women I didn’t know and would never meet again and by members of my close family. But nearly every woman I met had a story to tell from their own life or that of a friend, and it became clear that clear morality was not on one side or the other. … There were other questions, like what are our responsibilities to our children—existing and yet to come, to our partners, ourselves. … The sanctity of a woman’s right to control her own destiny is a moral force of its own. … I came to realize that the question of choice is to be answered, not by the state, but by the individual.”

Gephardt’s position on “partial birth” abortions remains unclear. In 2002, he voted for a ban on such abortions although he deemed it unconstitutional. When the House voted on a less-stringent ban in June 2003, he was out of town campaigning and declined to say how he would have voted.

Flip: In the early 1980s, Gephardt voted for the draft, chemical weapons production, and the MX missile.

Flop: In the mid-1980s, Gephardt voted to slow the growth of the defense budget, implement a nuclear freeze, and cancel the MX missile. Gephardt also led congressional opposition to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Flip: In 2002-03 Gephardt supported and worked for authorization of the Iraq war.

Context: Gephardt attributes his early positions to the influence of mentors and fellow Missouri congressmen Ike Skelton and Richard Bolling. Many say Gephardt’s leftward shift in the mid-1980s was part of his jockeying for a congressional leadership position and the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Gephardt rejects that theory, pointing out that unlike other Democrats, he never proposed to cut the defense budget.

Gephardt stood by his Gulf War vote for a few years, but in 1998, he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act, and in October 2002, he said: “In 1991, I did my best. In retrospect it was probably the wrong decision.” He attributes his recent hawkish drift to 9/11, which heightened his concern about weapons of mass destruction and rogue countries that develop them