Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vilsack: Can Competence Compete ?

Meeting Tom Vilsack is a reminder of how degraded American politics has become.

Start with his name. When the Iowa governor declared for President, even though he had been on the Democrats’ short list for VP in 2004, the universal reaction was “Huh?”

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart superimposed the Aflac duck on his announcement, and comic Lewis Black told Larry King that Vilsack sounded like an unmentionable disease. (When Dukakis ran in 1988, his name was the least of his problems)

Less hilarious was a Des Moines political columnist’s reaction: “Polls show the governor runs badly in his own home state...and a majority of Iowans don’t think he should get into this race.”

Case closed.

Yet, at a recent Manhattan meeting with several dozen potential supporters, Vilsack was anything but the stereotype of a sure loser.

A thoughtful, plain-spoken man, Vilsack has a long, hard row to hoe, but he makes a strong case for competence in governing that may resonate with a public exhausted by the Bush years.

As an orphan with a troubled adoptive family history, Vilsack identifies with the struggles of working Americans to give their children good health care and a decent education.

Asked about his unfamiliarity with foreign affairs, he cites all the experience in the room when Bush decided to go into Iraq. “What was missing,” he says, “was judgment.”

The larger question raised by his candidacy is: Amid the 24/7 din of pundits, pollsters, standup cynics and logorrheic bloggers, can a straight-talking politician like Vilsack be heard?

In the 1990s, the Presidential process still had space for serious people like Bill Bradley, Richard Lugar and Mario Cuomo, but it was shrinking.

Bill Clinton may have been the tipping point. As the smooth governor of a small state, he broke through anonymity and leveraged Bush 41’s lack of “the vision thing” to the White House, balanced the budget and kept us out of war but also managed to get himself impeached and rendered impotent to take out Osama bin Laden by fear of “Wag the Dog” accusations.

Since then, it has been all downhill. Last month’s election was a national cry of pain, but where do we go from here?

In coming months, Vilsack's fate may offer some clues. In the Iowa caucuses, he is in a bind. If he wins, ho-hum, but he may then attract enough serious money and support to go on. If not, it’s over.

Undaunted, he welcomes all challengers and predicts he will prevail by getting through to the people of Main Street where he lives literally in Mt, Pleasant, Iowa and figuratively all over America.

Without the clout of Hillary Clinton or the high voltage of Barack Obama, Vilsack has his own quiet charm and confidence.

On December 18th, he will be interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

“We’re going to have some fun,” he says with a small smile.

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