If you know Tom Vilsack’s name at all, you’re either a farm-state politics junkie, or a fan of the Daily Show, which has seared the appellation of the two-term Iowa governor into the minds of America’s youth by tweaking the Aflac duck call into…Vilsack!
Though his name may be the butt of jokes, don’t you dare question his qualifications, or worse yet, suggest he’s another Kucinich candidate. He doesn’t like that. And though he has nothing but praise for Hillary Clinton, he’ll also bristle if you wonder aloud whether he’s running to help take Iowa off the table for his friend on the Democratic Leadership Council.
“I’m a governor of eight years and a senior Democratic governor in this country,” Vilsack says. “I deserve to be on this stage and I deserve to be in this race.”
Vilsack is a serious man, who seriously believes he can capture the Democratic nomination. As a governor, he can claim an impressive record, having brought nearly universal health coverage to the kids of his state. And Vilsack insists he has the judgment to solve our Iraq quagmire. His solution? Pull our troops out of Baghdad and the rest of southern and western Iraq and re-deploy to Kurdistan.
Affairs Daily spoke to Vilsack last week. He impressed with his polish and his intensity and his concern for America’s underdogs. An orphan raised in an alcoholic family, he has a life story somewhat reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s. His warmth and charisma? You be the judge.
Rolling Stone: Dennis Kucinich is announcing his candidacy today. It’s understood that he’s just running to raise the profile of his position on Iraq. Are you another Kucinich candidate, or are you in this to win?
Tom Vilsack: Every political race I’ve started, I’ve entered as an underdog and a long shot. This is certainly no exception. But I happen to be the best person for this job. Democrats need someone who can win. And there are two strategies for winning:
You can energize the base, which is the strategy we’ve used in the last couple of elections…unfortunately without success.
Or you can energize and expand the base and bring the campaign to states where we’ve not had much success particularly in the heartland.
I may be the only candidate in this race who actually lives on Main Street. My address is 402 North Main. It’s been that way for twenty-three years. I understand small towns. I understand rural life because I’ve lived there and I can identify with all the underdogs and long shots who live in those communities. I’ve got a compelling personal story starting out as an orphan growing up in a troubled family. I think I can identify with a whole lot of Americans.
And I’m qualified to win. And therefore in a position to govern.
RS: You’ve got a generally appealing record on health care and education. But unfortunately we can say with confidence that the conversation in 2008 will still be focused on Iraq. What makes you confident that you’re the best person to lead the U.S. out of the quagmire in Iraq?
Vilsack: I could give you the standard answer that I’ve traveled to twenty-two countries. Visited with prime ministers and presidents. Most recently I’ve been in India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Israel, last year I went to China, Korea, Japan. I’ve commanded troops with our National Guard.
But I think it ultimately comes down to judgment. Let me draw a distinction between experience and judgment. I think sometimes we make a mistake by focusing exclusively on experience and fail to focus on good judgment.
We had all the experience in the room when this administration made the decision to leave Afghanistan — a place where we were welcomed, a place where the international community supported our effort, a place where even our enemies supported our presence. A place where we had meaningful work to get done and a place where we had not yet finished the job.
Experience basically said it was OK to pull out and redirect our efforts into Iraq, where we’ve made and continue to make serious mistakes.
And good judgment is about surrounding yourself with a group of people who can put the national interest ahead of a particular partisan or parochial or philosophical vision. That clearly has not been recently done with this administration.
RS: What is your judgment about what should be done in Iraq. You’ve talked about getting Iraqis to stand up, about removing the “crutch” of U.S. support. But pulling away that crutch could also lead to collapse, which the Baker/Hamilton report suggests would be catastrophic for U.S. interests.
Vilsack: There are three basic strategies with reference to Iraq. There is George Bush’s strategy of stay the course, and he is the only person is America who believes that that’s a good idea.
There’s the McCain strategy of making a big mistake bigger by putting even more troops into Iraq. He has suggested between 100,000 and 150,000 additional troops. The truth is that we do not have the capacity based on how the military has been used in the last five years to get that done. We do not have it in the full-time military nor do we have it in the National Guard and reserve.
So the only option that makes sense is looking strategically at where you have troops. I would take troops out of the southern part and central part of the country — including Baghdad. I would still have some American presence in the northern part of the country which is where I think our troops can be safest.
It can still send a very strong message to Iran that we do indeed now have some military option, which clearly we do not have today as long as we’re mired in Iraq. And honestly the Iranian situation is a far more dangerous and precarious situation for the world than the situation in Iraq is.
RS: But if we cabin ourselves up in Kurdistan, aren’t we basically sanctioning the breakup of Iraq into three sectarian areas, and letting Shia and Sunni Arabs fight it out amongst themselves?
Vilsack: I don’t know we’re necessarily preordaining that.
I think the Iraqis themselves will have to make a determination as to precisely what type of government they ultimately come up with and what kind of nation they ultimately come up with. But that’s the point.
The point is that as long as we’re where we are and we’re doing what we’re doing they never have to make that decision. They can continually use our presence either as an excuse or a crutch for not getting the job done. We can be there five years, fifty years, 500 years — the problem is not going to change until they are confronted with the reality that they have to make decisions and they have to make them themselves. They have to decide whether they want a country. They have to decide whether they’re willing to put their lives on the line and sacrifice for a national interest as opposed to a regional or sectarian interest.
RS: But if they decide to make a catastrophic decision to fight each other and begin the kind of sectarian cleansing that we saw in Yugoslavia, do we not then have an interest — per the Clinton Doctrine — of getting back in to stop that bloodshed.
Vilsack: But here’s the point that you’re missing. If in fact the U.S. takes moves and steps to change course significantly, it will send a message to the international community that we are once again willing to listen and once again recognizing that while we have superpower status we cannot do it alone.
And at that point it becomes not just the U.S. issue, not just an Iraqi issue. It becomes a world issue. And at that point I would expect and hope that the vast majorities of nations that have been standing aside while we’ve been mired in this fiasco would in fact say we do have a responsibility to avoid ethnic-cleansing.
We do as an international community want to discuss a redefinition of sovereignty in today’s world that would allow us to intervene in situations like Iraq, and while we’re at it let’s take care of Darfur.
RS: You’re the chair of the arch-centrist DLC. Does that make it hard for you to tap into the energy of the Netroots that propelled an underdog like Howard Dean?
Vilsack: One issue that I have that will be appealing particularly to the folks of the Netroots is the issue of energy security. If we truly want this country to be strong and secure we need to be less reliant on foreign energy and regimes that want to do us harm. We need to create whole new industries, a whole new economy around energy security and we also have the opportunity to reclaim the moral high ground on issues of climate change and global warming and climate security which we clearly lost when we walked away from Kyoto.
RS: You’re from Iowa and a big ethanol fan. But isn’t ethanol just a diversion on the issue of climate change. It may help get us away from foreign oil, but isn’t it misleading to talk about ethanol in terms of climate security. All that corn alcohol still gives off CO2 when it burns.
Vilsack: It is a cleaner burning fuel. But this is not just about ethanol and, frankly, corn-based ethanol is not necessarily the wave of the future. Ethanol may be but corn is not. There’s not enough corn. There needs to be focus on switch grass, on municipal waste, on timber, on other ways to produce ethanol that is more efficient and burns more efficiently and uses less energy to produce it. Corn was the entryway to this discussion. It’s by no means the end all be all.
This country probably also needs to take a different view on the sugar-cane ethanol produced in Brazil. We put a big tariff on it. We should look to ultimately eliminating that so that we get the supply of ethanol that lets Detroit produce flex-fuel cars and develop that industry.
This issue of energy security is clearly about conservation. Substantial conservation. I’m here in Miami talking with the mayor and we discussed his challenge by 2030 having zero carbon emissions coming from new construction in cities across the country. That’s a challenge that the national government should accept and meet.
It’s also about the expansion of renewables. The state of Iowa happens to be number one in wind production, per capita, and we’re third in production capacity. It’s a whole new opportunity for the state of Iowa to utilize a resource that’s essentially free.
It needs to be a massive national interest led by a president who can show that this is not just pie in the sky this is not just something that’s talked about every four years. I’m a candidate who can actually point to progress in my state in this area.
RS: You’ve seen the Daily Show “Vilsack!” bit. You strike me as a very serious guy. Are you able to laugh about that?
Vilsack: Listen, PT Barnum once said it doesn’t make any difference what they say as long as they keep talking about you. I think it’s great. People don’t have to remember my name, they only have to remember the first letter which is V. It stands for vision, it stands for victory, it stands for Vilsack.
RS: Tell me something positive about the presumptive frontrunner in this race, Hillary Clinton.
Vilsack: I’m big fan of Senator Clinton for a number of reasons. She has shown a capacity in the Senate to lead by example to quietly get her hands dirty with the details and the nitty-gritty of governing, which at the end of the day is what matters. All the glitz and glitter is one thing, but it’s problem-solving that is critical to the future of our country.
We have some serious issues that have to be addressed. We’ve talked about energy security, we’ve not talked about the fiscal mess that the folks in Washington have created which will compromise the future of our young people and the grandchildren that are being raised today. We’ve not talked about education or foreign policy outside of Iraq, where we clearly need a new direction. And I think Senator Clinton would obviously get herself immersed in all of that and attempt to solve many of those problems.
RS: Given your DLC connection and the way you sometimes talk about Clinton, there’s speculation that there may be an ulterior motive to your run. That you may be looking to help her candidacy by taking Iowa off the table.
Vilsack: That’s really…There’s a lot of conspiracy theories out there and that’s one that has no validity whatsoever. This isn’t about helping anybody else out. This is about making sure kids in America have someone who’s thinking about them and thinking about the future of this country.
I’m in this race to win.”