WASHINGTON – Democrat Dick Gephardt (search), siding with President Bush (search) on his $87 billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan, pledged Wednesday to finance the war on terrorism even if that posture undercuts his presidential bid or ensures budget deficits for years to come.
"We're in a military situation, we've got a lot of foreign obligations, we're fighting terrorism in many places around the world, we've got homeland security needs," the former House minority leader said. "In light of that, I don't think it's possible to get to a balanced budget."
In an hourlong interview with Associated Press editors and reporters, Gephardt criticized Bush's postwar policy in Iraq, but argued that it would be irresponsible to vote against reconstruction money for two war-torn nations.
"I think we've got to send the right signal to our troops in the field, and we've got to send the right signal to people in Iraq who both don't want us to succeed and do want us to succeed," Gephardt said.
The decision pits him against a majority of the nine-person Democratic field that opposes the $87 billion package. It also underscores a central dilemma of Gephardt's candidacy: He worked with the Bush administration in writing the congressional resolution authorizing the war a year ago when most Democratic voters either opposed the conflict or were yearning for a candidate to stand up to Bush.
Gephardt said he's often asked whether his Iraq position will backfire in the relatively liberal primaries. "I don't care," he said. "I did what I thought was right."
Struggling with a nagging cough, Gephardt spoke before flying to Iowa, site of Jan. 19 caucuses that kick off 2004 voting and test the viability of his campaign. He whimsically announced his 19th labor endorsement from the International Union of Journeymen Horseshoers and Allied Trades, 50,000 strong.
"There are more horses out there than you would think," Gephardt said, adding over laughter, "in need of shoes."
The Missouri lawmaker declared himself the best candidate to face Bush because of his deep ties to organized labor and his Midwest roots. "That's where I can best connect with voters," said Gephardt, who noted that Democratic nominee Al Gore would have defeated Bush in 2000 had he carried Missouri.
Like the rest of the field, Gephardt is trying to tap into the intense desire of Democrats to field a nominee who can beat Bush in a political climate in which leadership posts, Washington experience and endorsements mean less.
— Criticized Bush for failing to confront Saudi Arabia over the conduct of some of its citizens and government officials who support terrorism.
— Blamed the president for stirring ill-will among allies by publicly asserting the United States' right to launch pre-emptive strikes. Gephardt suggested the policy was always unspoken, and is one he would follow to prevent attacks.
— Called Bush politically vulnerable, thought still a formidable candidate for re-election. "He's not lost the election, for sure."
— Questioned Wesley Clark's (search) commitment to the Democratic Party. "I guess he's trying to say he's nonpartisan," Gephardt said of the general-turned-politician.
— Faulted front-running Democrat Howard Dean (search) for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement and siding with Republicans on Medicare cuts in the 1990s. Gephardt opposed former President Clinton on free trade.
"If that's being an insider, then I'm always willing to fight for the things that I believe in — and always will," Gephardt said.
It was his answer to claims by Clark and Dean that they are political outsiders, although the former has been a Washington lobbyist and the latter spent 20 years in the political arena.
Gephardt criticized Dean for using overly heated rhetoric against fellow Democrats — "Limbaugh-kind of attacks" he called them, comparing Dean to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. "This doesn't get us anywhere," he said.
He said the $87 billion package and other costs of fighting terrorism will make it harder to finance domestic needs, but Bush could ease the burden by repealing his tax cuts. Gephardt said fighting budget deficits is no longer a priority.
"The point is, your goal is not to get rid of the deficit; the goal is to make the economy grow," he said.