How left can you go? That seemed to be the question at the AFL-CIO's presidential forum last week, a kind of modified political limbo game with a huge reward for the winner. As the umbrella organization for 65 unions, the AFL-CIO represents some 13 million members-perhaps the Democrats' largest single cache of potential voters, volunteers, and donations.
Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) received a rock star's welcome before the crowd of 2,500 in Chicago, but what he really needed was a blanket endorsement to keep his campaign alive. The former House minority leader has tied his candidacy to the labor movement, so a rebuff from the AFL-CIO would likely kill his chances.
"I've simply tried to represent people like my parents, the people that make this country great, like you," Mr. Gephardt told the audience, reminding them that his Teamster father drove a milk truck , and that his mother was a secretary. He drew his biggest applause by railing against free trade, which unions see as diverting middle-class jobs to low-paying markets like Mexico and Asia. "This administration has declared war on the middle class in this country," he declared.
But even his parents and his protectionism may not be enough to win the endorsement for Mr. Gephardt. At least two big unions-the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees-view him as damaged goods after an unsuccessful White House bid in 1988. The AFL-CIO won't endorse a candidate without two-thirds support from all its members, so Mr. Gephardt can't win the nod without winning over the doubters.
The most likely stumbling block for Mr. Gephardt: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who draws strong support among both service workers and public employees. He blasted President Bush on jobs and the economy, stressing that he was the Democrat with the best chance of ousting the Republicans.
"I cannot wait to stand up and remind [the president] that having a skilled Navy pilot land you on an aircraft carrier in a borrowed suit does not make up for losing 3 million jobs," said Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
Union leaders admit the Massachusetts senator can't win the endorsement, but he could deny it to Mr. Gephardt by keeping the Missourian below the two-thirds threshold. If no one reaches that benchmark, the federation would simply not make a blanket endorsement -and that's probably not good enough to keep the Gephardt campaign alive.
With so much at stake, nearly all the candidates veered far to the left to woo their audience. "You can't beat president Bush by trying to be like him. We tried that in 2002 and it didn't work," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, taking a dig at Democrats who supported tax cuts and the war in Iraq.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), like most of his rivals, toed the union line on the issues of trade and protectionism. "My first act [as president] would be to cancel NAFTA and my second act would be to cancel the WTO [World Trade Organization]," he told the cheering crowd.
Mr. Gephardt, predictably enough, tried to trump everyone on the trade issue. "I am the one who not only voted against but led the fight against NAFTA," he said to a roar of approval. "When I'm president, you won't have to worry about trade treaties that don't take care of labor rights, human rights, and the environment."
Such rhetoric will surely hurt in the general election, but only two candidates resisted the urge to lurch leftward for a few million primary votes. "The United States does not have the choice to become a protectionist nation," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). "We are the leader of the world economy. Leading that economy carries with it certain responsibilities."
If the labor leaders didn't like that position, they reserved their harshest reaction for Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who insisted that only a moderate Democrat could unseat Mr. Bush. When Mr. Lieberman defended the concept of private-school vouchers for poor children, the union crowd booed. "I'm going to speak the truth. I'm going to say what I think about what's best for America," the senator responded. He can only hope it will be best for his candidacy, as well.