On Monday November 3, the fourth installment of Hardball: Battle for the White House took place live from the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) with Representative Dick Gephardt and host Chris Matthews. The series, shown live on MSNBC every Monday night, gives students from the Harvard community the opportunity to ask questions of the Democratic Presidential candidates in a one hour program. Students filled the forum to capacity, anxious for the chance to speak to Gephardt on national television.
The series, at its halfway point, has enjoyed tremendous student response and promises to continue to draw students in the remaining installments.
Senator John Edwards, Senator John Kerry and Reverend Al Sharpton have already taken their turns with Matthews. U.S. Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun will be up next on November 17, followed by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean on December 1 and General Wesley Clark on December 8, both of whom were just recently added to the schedule. This leaves Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Dennis Kucinich as the only Democratic candidates yet to sign on to play Hardball.
In the minutes before going live, this week’s Hardball held a noticeably more relaxed mood than the early episodes. The audience contained many repeat participants, and Matthews and his crew were feeling at home at KSG in their fourth week on location. Matthews did his standard crowd warm-up, quizzing the audience on political history in an attempt to stump the students of Harvard University. Following the taping, Matthews and his Executive Producer made themselves available to meet the audience and answer questions about the show and Matthews’ career.
Gephardt, a Representative from Missouri, has had a lengthy career in Congress. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and was elected House Democratic Leader in 1989. Gephardt believes that his position as a Washington insider differentiates him from the other candidates in the field and that experience in the highest levels of government is critical to successful leadership in the current world atmosphere.
Though currently third in the national polls, recent coverage in the political press cites the emergence of Gephardt and Dean as the leading candidates. Matthews opened the show by asking Gephardt to define the fundamental differences between his own platform and his opponent’s.
Gephardt summarized, “We disagree on Medicare…we disagree on guns…and we disagree on trade.” Matthews reminded Gephardt of the most notable disagreement between the two candidates, the war in Iraq.
Dean has made his vocal opposition to the war a cornerstone of his campaign platform, whereas Gephardt supported and continues to stand by Congress’ decision to enter Iraq.
As with the previous Hardball guests, Matthews pursued a series of rapid-fire questions regarding Gephardt’s stance on Iraq. Like the other candidates, Gephardt struggled to reconcile his support of the war with his open criticism of the Bush Administration’s execution of its war strategy.
Gephardt’s criticism focused most intensely on Bush’s relations with the UN and his failure to create a unified global initiative in Iraq. “I have tried to help this President…he is hard to help. He doesn’t work well with people. He doesn’t go to people and listen to people and hear them out.
We have to respect these countries. France is our friend. Germany is our friend. Russia is our friend.”
One of the main issues that distinguishes Gephardt from other candidates is his focus on labor and in particular, his pro-union platform. Matthews questioned Gephardt extensively on his opposition to the Right to Work bill. Gephardt defended his position, “You should be able to elect to have a union, and if the group decides to have a union, you ought to have to join in.” He also connected his pro-union stance with the lessons he learned in his childhood. “The reason we have a middle class in this country is because of unions. My dad was a Teamster. It was the best job he ever had.”
Gephardt took the opportunity to promote his other key labor issue, the minimum wage. Gephardt passionately supports both the institution of an international minimum wage standard and an elevation of the minimum wage in the U.S. “The proudest achievement of my time as majority leader with Bill Clinton was to raise the minimum wage, and when I’m President, we’re going to raise it big time.” When Matthews asked him to put numbers behind his policy, Gephardt responded, “It needs to be $8, $9.”
Students asked harsher questions of Gephardt as the show progressed.
One audience member probed him on his changing stance on partial birth abortions and his absence from the most recent Senate vote on the topic. Another student questioned Gephardt’s failure to support same sex marriages, particularly in light of his support of his openly gay daughter, Chrissy.
The crowd was generally supportive of Gephardt, giving loud cheers during a commercial break when Matthews asked who was planning to vote for him. Following the show, a group of Harvard College students reflected on the event and felt that Gephardt’s performance was strong, but that he was more controlled and calculated than the previous guests on the show. One female undergraduate commented, “Tonight’s show was so political; he had a packaged answer for everything.” Despite this skepticism, she added, “I will probably vote for him.”
Students will have the opportunity to continue to refine their views on the candidates over the next several weeks as Hardball: Battle for the White House continues Monday nights at KSG.
Editor’s Note: Students interested in attending future Hardball tapings can enter the ticket lottery located on the IOP/KSG website: www.iop.harvard.edu/lottery.php. In addition, the Harbus is actively seeking students who are interested in covering this year’s political campaign – from both the left, the right, and in-between. If you are interested in covering politics for the Harbus, please email firstname.lastname@example.org