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Political Mercury

Ernst vs. Vilsack: An all-Iowa vice presidential debate?

2/10/2016

Iowa, the center of the political universe for the presidential parties’ nominating contests, should be pivotal in the November general election, too, not only as a swing state, but as home to two strong potential vice presidential candidates.

Political Mercury has used this space to advance the position that Tom Vilsack is the best running-mate selection for Hillary Clinton, the Iowa caucuses winner and presidential front-runner nationally for the Democrats.

But let’s add U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, to the mix. She’d be an effective vice presidential candidate for any of the Republicans.

Did you see every pundit’s perfect vice presidential candidate, Florida’s Marco Rubio, choke Saturday night with that Manchurian Candidate debate performance in New Hampshire, his man-as-computer (Marco Roboto) act, the vinyl skipping and repeating in his retort to Chris Christie’s assault?

Ernst is a big-game performer. Unlike Rubio, she’s authentic, and she’s agile on her political feet — and keep in mind, this assessment is coming from a columnist who was one of Ernst’s chief detractors in the 2014 Senate race. I’ve tested her on several occasions with questions she couldn’t possibly predict, and Ernst handled them gamely.

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In a word, Ernst is clutch.

Just days into her job as a senator, Ernst delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union. No weird reaching-for-water moments (Marco Rubio) or diminishing oddball optics (Bobby Jindal).

She’s also the first female military combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate. She’s likeable, and already has forged good working relationships across the aisle, with people like U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.

“I love working with her,” Ernst tells Political Mercury, talking about their joint efforts on violence against women in the military and funding for World Trade Center-9/11 emergency personnel.

I asked Ernst recently, as part of a wide-ranging interview on a raft of topics, about the possibility of her being on a vice presidential selection list.

“That’s really nice of you,” Ernst said. “I think my mother would be really excited to hear you say that. But right now, I’ve just spent one year in the United States Senate, and I feel that I have been an influential member in the Senate, given that I’m a first-year freshman.”

Ernst said that should any opportunities present themselves, she’d first think about her responsibilities to Iowans. So she’s not just dismissing the possibility of being on a national ticket. Which, to accept her standard of measure, is good news for Iowa.

On the Democratic side, Tom Vilsack has been as strong of a secretary of agriculture as any our nation has known.

He’s a former highly respected two-term governor of Iowa, one with a reputation as an able manager, a quick study on policy — basically a level-headed guy with the right stuff where it comes to not getting all fussed with the daily winds of politics.

Vilsack has a long game, which is rare in the modern, 140-characters-or-less public sphere.

A full, clear-eyed analysis reveals Vilsack as the best vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in 2016 if Hillary Clinton is at the top of the ticket.

Clinton will do exceedingly well in urban areas, and the historic nature of her bid plays well with independent women in the suburbs.

He’ll be a wonderful ambassador to rural America for the campaign, the man best suited to turn that “What’s the Matter With Kansas” nonsense upside-down and send it spinning. In short, Vilsack can survive, even fight, behind enemy lines for the Democrats in a national election.

Vilsack can go after rural voters based on an economic, production-agriculture friendly appeal. Does this mean Clinton-Vilsack carry Kansas? Of course not.

But think about what it would mean for agriculture to have someone with intimate knowledge of policy — and unflinching support for policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard — serving in the beating heart of American government.

Many in rural America, while culturally disconnected to the point of hatred, revulsion from Hillary Clinton, will see past that in favor of security for the government’s buoying of American agriculture — which will be in sure hands with Vilsack behind Joe Biden’s former desk in the Old Executive Office Building. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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