Life of the Party

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack won't say whether he's running for president, but he has plenty of ideas for how Democrats can win back the White House and restore the "American promise."

By Tim Grieve
Published May 18, 2005 6:51PM (EDT)

Iowans like their governor just fine, thanks, but they don't particularly care for the idea that he might run for president. Tom Vilsack was on the shortlist of contenders to be John Kerry's running mate, and he was briefly a candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. But Iowans seem to have a hard time getting their minds around one of their own as a national political leader. An Iowa poll taken earlier this year has 55 percent of the state's population saying it would be a "bad idea" for Vilsack to run for the White House.

Poll numbers like that didn't stop Bill Clinton -- a few months before he announced his candidacy in 1991, a plurality of Arkansas residents said he shouldn't -- and they aren't likely to stop Tom Vilsack, either. Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years won't say whether he's running in 2008, but he won't deny it, either. He says he's concentrating on the current legislative term in Des Moines and on helping Democrats win governors races across the country in 2006. But in the next breath, he begins articulating the sort of centrist political approach -- strong on national security, big on values, a lot of talk about the "American promise" -- that is music to the ears of those who believe that the road to the White House runs right up the middle.

Ask Vilsack whether Kerry lost in 2004 because he didn't do enough to distinguish himself from George W. Bush, and whether the Democrats might benefit from a leader more in the Howard Dean mold, and the mild-mannered governor begins to bristle: "That's not where the country is," he says.

Vilsack believes the country can be found in the heartland, but he doesn't mean just geographically. Americans are worried about change, he says, and they need leaders who understand their worries, who can relate to them and reassure them that there's still reason to believe in the idea that each generation of Americans will have it better than the one before.

Vilsack recently spoke with Salon by telephone from his office in Des Moines.

Are you running for president in 2008?

My focus -- and I'm not being evasive or smart about this -- is on the legislative session that's under way here and the 2006 election cycle. There are 36 governors races that will be decided in the next two years, and that is also a wonderful opportunity for the Democratic Party to address some serious gaps that they have with ordinary folks. I'm intent on trying to help the party reconnect with those folks.

What are those gaps?

First of all, there's the "security" gap. Republicans, for the last 40 or 50 years, have done a wonderful job of convincing people that they will keep America safer than Democrats. They started this with communism in the '50s and '60s, they extended it to the war on crime in the '70s and '80s, and now [they're doing it] with the war on terror. Democrats have got to convince folks that we can keep them safe.

I think governors have a role to play in delivering that message. We are on the front line of homeland security efforts: It's our local police, our public safety departments, our emergency-management folks that will have to deal with situations. We can reassure people that we are absolutely focused on that mission -- figuring out a way to not only make sure that we're secure against an attack but also [prepare for] what is more likely to happen, whether it's a flu epidemic or a natural disaster.

But if Kerry, who served in Vietnam and who now serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can't make that case, how can a Democratic governor make it?

I think we can make that case. In my particular case, I can suggest that it was this Democratic governor and other Democratic governors that suggested to this administration that it focus on agri-terrorism. For whatever reason, there didn't seem to be much of a focus on agri-terrorism until Midwestern governors, led by me, suggested that we put resources behind a regional effort to detect, prevent and respond to a potential agri-terrorism threat.

This isn't just about serving in a war. It's about having policies, it's about having ideas, it's about being able to say without reservation that you can and will keep people safe. Governors do this every day, as we battle methamphetamines, for example. The chances of people in my state being attacked by al-Qaida versus being affected by methamphetamines -- I can tell you the chances are much greater that they're going to be affected by methamphetamines.

Is part of it, then, switching the focus away from the narrower approach of preparing for the next time someone flies an airplane into a building?

I think it is. It's essentially saying: We need to be vigilant, and we need to be prepared for those circumstances, but we ought not to focus homeland security solely on those items. We need to look for ways to get a better bang for our buck. So, for example, if you're doing public funding for bioterrorism, maybe you create a stronger system that can respond to a flu epidemic, which can in some cases be just as deadly and just as dangerous to the population.

So is it a matter of convincing people that the other stuff isn't quite as important as they thought it was in 2004?

No. It's a matter of suggesting that Democrats understand that the first priority of any government is to protect its people. And protecting [them] involves a multitude of responsibilities, from homeland security to food safety to continuing the war on crime and the war on drugs.

Where did Kerry fail in making that case?

It really wasn't a failure on his part. I think it's just the natural consequence of running as a legislator. If you're a legislator, you have to make decisions in a variety of different circumstances, and you have to vote on bills and amendments all the time. And usually, when you vote, it's in the context of something you understand at the time you cast that vote. But in an election, [your votes] can be twisted. So, for example, Kerry voted against a series of defense appropriations and weapons systems. Well, there's probably a very good reason why both he and Dick Cheney voted against a number of those weapons systems. But [Kerry's votes were] used in the campaign to suggest to voters that this was a man who wasn't committed to keeping people safe.

What do you think are other areas in which the Democrats face challenges?

The second area is what I'll refer to as the values area. It's not necessarily our ability or inability to speak about our faith; it's the perception that the Democratic Party is a party of elites, whether intellectual or Hollywood, and that as a result perhaps it's more difficult for Democrats to understand where common folks are coming from. If the face of the Democratic Party is a movie actor or a movie producer or someone from a university who's got a theory about something, ordinary folks may think they don't really understand what it's like to try to find child care and pay for it on a fixed income, or to work two jobs and find time to get to Johnny's Little League game.

Why do Republicans get a pass on this? Bush is someone who doesn't know a whole lot about finding child care on a fixed income, either.

Because he comes across as a regular guy. He uses "regular guy" language that's simple to understand. Sometimes it's language that causes some folks to snicker. But you know what? There are a lot of ordinary folks out there that feel empathy and sympathy for him when he's in that circumstance.

And I think Republicans do a better job with language. They've spent a lot of money and a lot of time thinking about these things. Democrats have spent all of their time and energy on policies and programs that impact and affect people's lives. Republicans have spent all of their time on ideas -- how to couch those ideas, frame those ideas, and communicate those ideas.

Do the Democrats need to reframe the discussion, to reeducate the American people that the Democratic Party is the one that stands up for working people and regular folks?

In my view, our language has to be reframed in the context of the American promise -- the concept I grew up with in which each generation believed it had a responsibility to the succeeding generation to make life better. It's the reason why my folks sacrificed to make sure I had a college education, why people served in the armed forces and came back and built a strong and vibrant economy, then sacrificed to make sure that their children had a better life.

You've also talked a lot about values. When I read your State of the State address from this year, I stopped counting the number of times you used "values" as a way to describe the basis for various things you're doing in Iowa. Is that part of making a connection with voters again?

Absolutely. People have to understand that there's a reason, one they can relate to, why it's important to have funding for child care: that it's tied to a responsibility that we have, collectively, to make sure that our children have a great start. They have to understand that healthcare is every bit as important to someone's security as homeland security. And they have to understand that government's job -- at the state level, for sure -- is to help create an economy where jobs are created that will help support families and communities. This is a way of connecting people to their government.

We're out of power -- the last time I checked, anyway. We don't have the presidency, we don't have the Congress, we don't have the majority of governors. Yet we're the party that seems to be defending the status quo all of the time. You would think that the party in power would be the party defending the status quo and not proposing change.

Social Security is your Exhibit A here?

Yeah, Social Security, Medicaid, to name two.

What should Democrats be doing on Social Security?

I think what Democrats should do is say, "Mr. President, thank you for raising this issue. Retirement security is an important issue and needs to be dealt with. But it's not enough to simply talk about Social Security because, frankly, there are many more problems with healthcare security at this point in time. Unless we address the healthcare crisis in this country -- which is making our companies less competitive and making it more difficult for people to earn a decent living -- we aren't going to be able to generate the revenue to support a retirement system. So, Mr. President, let's talk about security in a broader context. Let's address healthcare security at the same time as, and in conjunction with, Social Security."

So that's the first thing Democrats should do on Social Security. The second thing is that, if at some point Democrats recognize that there's a problem to be solved with reference to Social Security, it will be incumbent on the Democratic Party to put a plan on the table. It's not enough -- people should expect more from us -- to simply say that we're against what the president is proposing.

You're a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, right?

Uh, yeah, I guess so. I don't know.

It lists you as a member. And you know, that tag -- centrist Democrat, New Democrat, DLC -- inspires a lot of groaning from folks farther to the left. How would you respond to those who say that Kerry lost because he didn't provide a stark enough contrast to Bush, that the party needs someone more like Dean as its standard-bearer?

Well, that's not where the country is.

But 57 percent of the country now thinks the war in Iraq was a mistake.

You know, that's today. That's certainly not [how it was in] the beginning of 2004. We know more today than we did in 2004. And we are [in Iraq], and whether it was a mistake or not is somewhat academic. We certainly can't leave until the job gets done. I mean, if the United States were to pull out now, we would have absolute chaos, and all the parents and spouses of the 1,500-plus young men and women who have given their lives would certainly be able to question whether their sacrifices were worth it.

To be fair, that's Dean's view as well -- that the United States can't pull out now.

I don't think it's about contrast [with regard to Kerry vs. Bush]. I think people are troubled today by the pace of change. I think they're insecure; I think they're nervous, and with some justification, because things are constantly changing. What Democrats have to express to people is that we understand their frustration and their insecurity, and we are going to help deal with it. We're going to work hard to restore the American promise. We're going to rebuild the confidence that people have in the notion that the next generation can indeed have it better.

And here's how we're going to do it. We're going to transform the economy, recognizing that we have to have a different kind of economy than the one we have today. We're going to come up with an energy policy that ensures that no one dies for oil. We'll become more independent from an energy standpoint by utilizing the tools and the opportunities that God gave us, whether it's wind or solar or hydropower, or opportunities that grow from the ground, renewable fuels. We're going to transform the economy by having an education system that isn't about a bumper-sticker philosophy but about investing in quality in the classroom.

We have to address the healthcare crisis by approaching healthcare in the way that governors are approaching government -- by looking for and eliminating inefficiencies and waste. I've seen studies that suggest that as much as 30 or 40 percent of our healthcare costs are simply in pushing paper. Have we given a great deal of thought to how we can best utilize the nurses, the nurse practitioners, the support personnel? Have we looked at their scope of practice to ensure that they are given as much latitude and opportunity [as possible] to save money?

There are many things we can and ought to do, but Democrats have also got to give people an understanding that we have a plan -- that we know that they're frustrated and insecure, and we're going to address that.

You're saying that you've got to make people feel more secure, and less like the world is changing on them, all while persuading them to vote for a change in the party that's controlling their government. That's a tough trick to pull off, isn't it?

The way you do it is by suggesting that we are in a fierce competition, one unlike any we've ever seen. We have to stimulate the competitive juices in Americans. When Russia put up the Sputnik back when I was a kid, the competitive juices started to flow, and we decided that we were going to beat them to the moon. Well, we are now in a global economy, and to preserve the standard of living that we have in this country, we have got to win the competition -- by being innovative and creative and by coming up with ideas that nobody else has thought of. I think Americans can do that. I think they're looking for leadership that will inspire them to do that. It will require creative approaches to how much we spend on various aspects of government.

Do you think that having you on the ticket would have made a difference in 2004?

[Laughs, with a long pause.] Boy, that's a tough question to answer. Let me put it this way: I've never lost a race. And the reason is in part because I have a wonderful spouse who is a great campaigner. I know that we would have given every ounce of energy to Kerry and to Kerry's team. I don't know what the outcome would have been. And, really, it doesn't make much difference at the end of the day. John Edwards is a great guy; Elizabeth Edwards is a great woman. They did their best, and they just came up short.

Edwards sort of disappeared once he was on the ticket.

Well, we saw a lot of him in Iowa.

You saw a lot of everyone in Iowa, but Bush still won the state. What will it take to turn around Iowa and the rest of the heartland?

I was at the White House Correspondents Association dinner [last month], and I was sitting close to [Republican National Committee chairman] Ken Mehlman. I leaned over during Laura Bush's performance and indicated to him that the reason Bush won Iowa, in my view, taking nothing away from the president and his team, was Laura Bush. She did a terrific job campaigning for her husband in Iowa. She went to communities that were on the outskirts of the major metropolitan areas in our state (where the major media would cover her) and sent the message that small towns and small-town values were important to the Bush administration.

Iowans want to know that you understand the trials and tribulations and struggles and aspirations and hopes and dreams of ordinary folks, and that you're going to work hard and do your level best to make a better life for them and their families. That's why I think I won the governor's race in '98 and why I was one of the few folks reelected in 2002.

It sounds like you've internalized a bit of Thomas Frank.

I don't know if I have or not. But I know what I believe, and I believe strongly in this concept of the American promise. I was thinking about it the other day. My father was not a very successful business guy. I remember the last time I talked to him, on April 14, 1972. I called him from college to let him know that I had been accepted to law school. He had just suffered a stroke and wearily explained to me that he wasn't sure where the money would come from but he'd find a way to help pay for law school. Two days later, he passed away.

Veterans benefits, Social Security benefits, student loans, my work, Christie's work -- all were part of how I was able to get myself through law school. But my father sacrificed just about everything he had to give me this educational opportunity, which in turn gave me opportunities to be a lawyer, to have success in that profession, to raise my family adequately, and then to get into politics. That's what this is all about. And if I can do it, starting out life in an orphanage, anybody can do it.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Democratic Party Healthcare Reform Homeland Security Howard Dean Iraq War John F. Kerry D-mass.