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Cover Story

Should Tom Vilsack be president?

2/19/2014

America needs a good five cent cigar, a chicken in every pot and a president like Tom Vilsack.

The former Iowa governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture represents the type of political figure who may be what America needs most — a leader who possesses extensive executive experience, a successful record of working across the political aisle and professional modesty that casts aside partisanship and focuses on reaching consensus to solve America’s problems; all without flash.

In an era where public office is increasingly bought and paid for by wealthy Americans and special interest groups, when the nation’s problems are becoming more complicated and where political figures seem packaged and programmed, average Americans seem to be losing out — as polarizing politics, intensely personal political hatred and gridlocked government have become the norm. Americans could start to change all that by looking to governors to provide a new era of presidential leadership.

 

Good governors will make the best presidents

Governors may be best-equipped to become president. They understand the day-to-day workings of government and what it takes to pass budgets, administer departments and agencies, and implement public policy in large bureaucracies. Most are pragmatic and efficient managers who have learned how to deal with a broad range of individuals, interest groups, organizations and coalitions, all who have a variety of agendas and expectations of government and in doing so they must achieve practical compromise, solutions and larger statewide goals.

Despite a divided government, President Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California, produced significant accomplishments in his tenure including reworking revenue sharing and block grants, increasing American’s military stature and lowering tax brackets.

Despite a divided government, President Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California, produced significant accomplishments in his tenure including reworking revenue sharing and block grants, increasing American’s military stature and lowering tax brackets.

Governors are continually pressured by political and bureaucratic crises and unexpected problems on a daily basis, making them problem solvers adept at maneuvering difficult situations.

Legislators, on the other hand, talk a great deal about issues and contemplate possibilities at hearings, in committee rooms and on the chamber floor. But at the end of the day, legislators have very little, if any, experience governing.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons Barack Obama has had such a difficult time as President. He was a state legislator and U.S. Senator but never actually managed government. Obama came into office lacking critical skills needed to govern — he had no executive experience, he never had to work with a hostile legislature or cajole opposition leaders, or deal with multiple interest groups affected by executive actions. It has been on-the-job training for him.

Democrats are quick to blame the Republican Congress for stymieing Obama, but other presidents have produced significant accomplishments with divided government.

When Ronald Reagan was president, Democrats controlled the House during his entire tenure, yet they were able to rework general revenue sharing and block grants, increase America’s international and military stature and significantly lower tax brackets.

Bill Clinton may have had his greatest legislative successes with a Republican-controlled Congress, accomplishing a historic revamping of the nation’s welfare system, tax cuts and arriving at a balanced budget before he left office, the last in the nation’s history.

Both Reagan and Clinton were former governors who had considerable experience as chief executives, with Reagan serving eight years and Clinton nearly a dozen. They came to the presidency with well-tested and well-established skills for governing, working with Congress and implementing an agenda.

Seventeen of America’s 44 presidents had previously served as governor of a U.S. state. In the modern era, that list includes Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. For their efforts, voters rewarded four of the five with multiple terms.

Certainly non-governors can be effective presidents. Richard Nixon crafted a remarkable record of legislative accomplishments with a Congress of the opposite party. Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are considered to have been successful, but both were also fortunate to have enjoyed a Democratically-controlled Congress. Dwight Eisenhower was not a governor but did have considerable executive experience as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II.

Given the success of governors, it is not surprising that many of the most talked about presidential candidates are current or former governors, such as Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Rick Perry and Scott Walker along with Democrats Andrew Cuomo, Howard Dean, Martin O’Malley, Brian Schweitzer and Mark Warner.

 

Direct Democracy on the decline

Presidential campaigns in America have changed over time. They are more ideologically divisive than ever with a nomination process that has turned into a media-driven spectacle, all which is increasingly funded by interest groups, political action committees, corporations and ideological billionaires. In the process, Americans may be losing control of the ability to select the nominee of their party and, ultimately, a better general election choice for president.

Since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (Federal Exchange Commission), money is increasingly affecting the outcome of elections. About $7 billion was spent on the 2012 presidential election, more than the Gross National Product of 110 countries around the world. The $7 billion figure amounts to one dollar for every person on the planet.

Since the 2012 election, party elites, backed by the power of money, have been manipulating the political landscape for what would seemingly be a titanic contest between Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie. Then “Bridgegate” came along to put that matchup temporarily on hold.

For a majority of American history, presidential nominees have been selected by a small group of elites, literally in back rooms, as party kingpins and deal-makers decided on a candidate. Initially Members of Congress selected the party’s presidential nominee, and when political conventions became popular, the delegates were selected by party bosses who maintained control of nominees by bargaining and posturing for their candidates with the delegates they controlled.

After the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where anti-war activists had little say in the nomination resulting in Hubert Humphrey as the party stalwart, the system gave way to direct democracy. Rank-and-file party members took control from party bosses, creating our current system of primaries and caucuses. Both parties adopted the 1972 election cycle. Under this system, regular voters, rather than elites, would select the party nominee. Hence, the Iowa caucus was born.

 

The rise and fall of the Iowa Caucus

While the new system has evolved since 1972, regular party voters have essentially maintained control over the selection of the party nominee. In the 1970s and 1980s, candidates could make an impact by investing in shoe leather, meeting voters one-on-one and building a campaign for themselves outside of the control of the party establishment.

Jimmy Carter used sheer hard work to win in 1976, feverishly connecting individually with Iowa voters. Gary Hart combined hard work with progressive ideas in 1984 and came close to overtaking the establishment candidate, Walter Mondale. Howard Dean used hard work, ideas and new technology to create a grassroots movement that had a mercurial rise and fall in 2004. Obama perfected this progression by adding tremendous amounts of money to the mixture and he stunned the establishment by toppling the Clinton machine in 2008.

But party elites have discovered how to wrestle back control from average party voters and now the Clinton juggernaut is poised to bring the evolving caucus full circle and back into a smoked-filled room.

The primary and caucus season in 2016 could bypass any possibility of a real contest if Clinton is coroneted in what has become a political coup that has overtaken the Democratic Party. Just as Dean and Obama figured out how to use technology and money, the Clinton machine will combine the two and add the threat of a political firing squad for anyone opposing her candidacy.

But Clinton’s 2016 effort, successful or not, could end up reducing the relevance of the Iowa caucus and possibly spell the end of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, because it matters little which state goes first if the party elites have decided the contest before it begins. As money increases in importance, average voters no longer matter.

Hillary Clinton may prove to be an able president, but Democrats need to ask why the GOP-controlled House would conduct itself any differently for her than they have for Obama. The “Hillary-haters” have been subdued only because they have Obama to loathe. If Hillary is the nominee, the haters will re-emerge, bringing back Whitewater, Vince Foster, Hillary’s health care, Monica Lewinsky and all the new scandals that are sure to surface in some form or another, dragging America through those muddy waters all over again.

At some point, regular party activists need to take action in striving for something better, something that will make government function and politics tolerable again for the majority of the country. That means starting with an experienced and capable governor who can move the country away from the current political circus and into an era of governing which focuses on creating a national agenda and solving the country’s problems.

 

Tom Vilsack’s story

Tom Vilsack has as compelling a story as almost anyone in national politics. Born in Pittsburgh, Penn., on Dec. 13, 1950, he was placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage at birth. This began a life pattern that pressed him into situations not of his choosing.

He was adopted in 1951 by Bud and Dolly Vilsack, who had one daughter. His mother, who battled alcoholism, left the family when he was 13, leaving his father to care for the children. His parents later reunited, but they have all since passed away — his father before Vilsack graduated from college, his mother shortly after he was married and his sister from a failed heart transplant.

Vilsack’s father had focused his modest funds on his children’s education, sending Tom to preparatory high school at the Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. Vilsack then earned a bachelor’s degree from New York’s Hamilton College in 1972 and a law degree from Albany Law School in 1975.

While at Hamilton, he approached Christie Bell and asked her if she supported Humphrey or Nixon for president. Her response for the Democratic candidate began a relationship that would see them married five years later and moving to her hometown of Mount Pleasant, where he would work at her father’s law firm. In the small southeastern Iowa town, he prospered — winning important legal cases, including triumphant verdicts for farmers during the farm crisis of the 1980s.

President Bill Clinton, who presided as governor of Arkansas, had great legislative success with a Republican-controlled Congress, revamping the nation’s welfare system and tax cuts and arriving at a balanced budget.

President Bill Clinton, who presided as governor of Arkansas, had great legislative success with a Republican-controlled Congress, revamping the nation’s welfare system and tax cuts and arriving at a balanced budget.

Vilsack was enjoying the kind of personal and financial success that most Americans would describe as ideal — a wife and family, financial success and winning the respect and admiration of friends and neighbors.

That all changed on Dec. 10, 1986, when a local resident, Ralph Davis, calmly waited for the Mount Pleasant City Council meeting to adjourn, and then walked into the council chambers, pulled out a gun and shot to death Mayor Edward King and seriously wounded two city council members. Davis had become enraged when the city declined to reimburse him $350 for damage caused by a backed-up sewer.

A shocked, stunned and grieving city turned to Tom Vilsack to lead them. Thrust into a position of leadership, by all accounts, he performed admirably. Vilsack had already become a respected figure in the community by joining and leading the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce and the local United Way. He also helped spearhead an effort to raise $750,000 for a youth sports complex.

Vilsack served as mayor for two terms but did not seek a third term. Instead, residents used write-in votes to keep him in office. At the urging of friends and community members, he ran for the state senate in 1992, winning a close three-way race, but was unopposed for re-election in 1994. In the legislature, he earned a reputation as a policy wonk that did his homework, studied the issues in detail, scoured state budget figures and became versed in the workings of state departments and agencies.

But part-way through his second term, when he was being mentioned as a possible congressional candidate, Vilsack astounded political observers by indicating he would resign his senate seat to return to Mount Pleasant — the frustration of politics and the time away from his wife and two boys apparently weighing heavily on him.

Friends and party leaders, seeing the possibilities for his future, convinced him to stay and when Gov. Terry Branstad announced he would not seek a fifth term, Vilsack joined in the 1998 race for governor.

In the Democratic primary, many liberals and other activists gave their support to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark McCormick. But Vilsack persisted with hard work, attending local county party meetings and winning over voters one at a time. He won the primary 51 percent to 49 percent.

Despite near assurance that he would win a third term as governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack announced that he would not seek re-election, keeping his promise to serve only two terms.

Despite near assurance that he would win a third term as governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack announced that he would not seek re-election, keeping his promise to serve only two terms.

In the fall race, most had written him off after trailing former Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot by 20 points heading into the post-Labor Day campaign. While a Democrat had not been elected governor for 32 years, the steady Vilsack kept working and came from behind to win in a stunning upset, garnering 52 percent of the vote to Lightfoot’s 47 percent. The unlikely orphan from Pennsylvania had become Iowa’s 40th governor.

In 2002, Vilsack comfortably won re-election against Des Moines attorney Doug Gross by a margin of 53 percent to 45 percent. He became the first Democrat to be re-elected governor since 1966 when Harold Hughes held the post before running for the U.S. Senate.

When John Kerry won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, Vilsack made the short list for vice-president. Kerry picked North Carolina Senator John Edwards, but perhaps Kerry could have used Vilsack’s help, as his campaign lost the Hawkeye state by a mere 10,000 votes.

Despite near assurance that he would win a third term as governor in 2006, Vilsack announced that he would not seek re-election, keeping his promise to only serve two terms.

He was encouraged to run for president in the 2008 contest and announced his candidacy in Mount Pleasant, but he exited from the race after just three months, noting he simply could not match the fundraising capacity of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He supported Clinton and then endorsed Obama when he won the nomination. The new president tapped him to join the Cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture. He won unanimous consent from the U.S. Senate on Jan. 20, 2009.

Vilsack currently manages one of the most diverse, complex and impactful departments in government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more than 100,000 employees, a $146 billion budget and deals with a remarkably wide-ranging set of public policy matters. It is difficult to find a public policy issue that is not tied to his department. In addition to the standard farming, forestry and food issues, other key areas include immigration, climate change and global warming, natural disasters, health care, nutrition, housing and utilities, economic development, trade and national security.

In his position, Vilsack has developed an in-depth knowledge of public policy on major national and international issues. He has had extensive public speaking and travel opportunities that have put him in touch with key leaders across the country and all over the world. From a public policy and management perspective, Vilsack is as well-equipped to be president of the United States as anyone in the country.

 

The reluctant politician

Tom Vilsack appears to be a person who does not ask for the spotlight, does not unduly promote himself and has shied away from attention. Unlike most politicians, he never planned a political career. Rather, he was thrust into office by citizens desiring a steady hand and he appears to have governed accordingly along the way. As he has progressed up the political ladder, he has continually stepped off — only to get back on again. While he takes on new political challenges, he seems comfortable to simply walk away — a sort of self-imposed term limit — seemingly not obsessed with the political power that may come with these positions.

America needs a new era of presidents who possess chief executive experience and are ready for the job. And if Americans are looking for a president who can actually manage the government and produce results, then Tom Vilsack is a good choice. He is a solution seeker and problem solver, a seasoned and effective administrator and is able to work in a bipartisan fashion. His tenure as both state chief executive and cabinet secretary has not been marred in politics, mudslinging or constant posturing. Maybe that is what the country needs. Whether Vilsack will ever get the chance may be, like the rest of his life, a matter of fate. CV

James Strohman has written about Iowa government and politics for over 30 years and teaches political science at Iowa State University, contact strohman@iastate.edu.

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