Democratic presidential contender and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack doesn’t get much respect from political consultants and analysts. Dan Gerstein, a Democratic consultant, describes him as “ill-defined,” and Larry Sabato dubs him “bland” and “unknown.” But is it too early to write off this two term governor of a red state and the favorite son in the increasingly important Iowa caucus?
Vilsack has a personal history to rival John “Son of a Mill Worker” Edwards. Born in Pittsburgh to an alcoholic mother, given up for adoption at birth to nuns at a Catholic orphanage, and a victim of child abuse, he relates his hard-luck story in compelling terms, sometimes leaving voters in tears. Iowa State University political science professor and expert on state politics Steffen Schmidt says that, unlike many politicians, Vilsack “knows who he is and tells his story with genuineness.” Politicians of both parties acknowledge his personal sincerity and integrity. Former Congressman Jim Leach says: “He is a decent man with decent values.” Iowa Republican State Representative Jamie Van Fossen says he is “detail oriented and serious, but also stubborn and a bit of a loner.”
His reputation as a moderate seems not a result of his own doing but of the Republican state legislature, which kept his penchant for taxes in check. The pattern became a familiar one: He would propose tax increases and the legislature would reject them. As CATO put it in giving him a “C” rating in 2006: “Vilsack was a chief executive who, if left to his own devices, would have been a pro-tax Democrat. Vilsack included some sort of tax increase in almost every budget he proposed as governor. The legislature refused to pass every one he sent to it, and he in turn vetoed every income tax cut that the legislature sent to him.” Gas and cigarette taxes were favorites, the later part of his commitment to deter smoking. Vilsack called for an 80-cent per pack cigarette tax for two years running only to be rebuffed by the legislature. Explaining his determination at a March 2006 news conference, he said: “Every single member of my family died as a result of complications from a smoking habit.” In mid-2006, Vilsack did agree to a compromise with Republicans to grant retirees more than $100 million in tax relief by phasing out a tax on Social Security over eight years while accelerating an increase in other retirement exemptions over three years.
On spending he initially showed restraint, in large part because of the Republicans in the legislature. Congressman Leach explains: “They understood their obligation to hold the line on spending, and relative to their Democratic counterparts who generally committed excessively to pro-spending interest groups, they were willing to seem a bit curmudgeonly.” Deprived of tax increases by the legislature and required by state constitution to balance the budget, Vilsack weathered the three tight-budget years from 2001-03. Rep. Van Fossen gives Vilsack credit for enacting a mid-year across-the-board cut of 4 percent in 2002 while the legislature was out of session. In recent years, as revenues increased, he has discarded frugality. According to Americans for Tax Reform his budget for Fiscal Year 2006 jumped 7.1 percent over Fiscal Year 2005 and another 6.7 percent in Fiscal Year 2007. The reason for his big spending is simple: Vilsack, unlike Ronald Reagan, truly believes government is the solution to our problems.
Not enough economic activity and job creation? Iowa suffered from a stagnating economy and an aging population when Vilsack took office. Rather than cut high state-taxes Vilsack championed two major government initiatives. Vision Iowa doled out state grants for construction of major community attractions. An enormous economic development program called the Iowa Values Fund aimed to distribute $500 million over 10 years with the goal of making Iowa a center for life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and information technology businesses. Although Van Fossen and some Republican legislators had reservations about “picking winners and losers” in the Iowa economy, these programs generally had bipartisan support. Vilsack claims that his efforts resulted in more than $7 billion in new investment and more than 30,000 new jobs for the state with an average wage of over $37,000, significantly higher than the average state-wage.
He was equally active on the education front. Professor Schmidt says Vilsack has a “great passion” for education and came into office seeking “to raise revenue and improve education.” Vilsack did get high marks from most observers for improvements in Iowa’s elementary education system. He spent money to hire more teachers and increase pay. During his tenure Iowa’s fourth-graders improved in reading and also placed among the best in the nation in math and science scores. In 2006 Vilsack also pushed for, and received, millions for preschool programs as part of his “Strong Start” initiative. However, Republicans felt Vilsack “pulled a fast one” in 2006 when the legislature gave him $210 million in school funding only to see him line-item veto conditions tying the pay increases to teacher performance.
Vilsack was not shy about exercising his powers as governor in support of liberal causes. He vetoed the Republican legislature’s attempts to limit publicly funded abortions and legal assistance and to enact eminent domain protection (which the legislature overrode). His executive order prohibiting discrimination against employees in the executive branch based on sexual orientation was declared unconstitutional by a state court. Although he signed a bill making English the official language of Iowa, he soon expressed buyer’s remorse. Blaming “hate groups” that fueled “anti-immigrant” messages, he said he regretted signing the bill, though he also claimed to have “improved” it — that is, made it less exacting — by forcing several exceptions to the requirement that government documents, proceedings, and publications be in English.
Vilsack’s infatuation with government was certainly on display in his energy policies. In his January 2003 State of the State address, Vilsack set out goals for dramatically increasing energy production from renewable sources by the end of the decade and of making Iowa a net energy exporter. Vilsack pushed tax credits for alternative fuel production and signed legislation clearing the way to develop the largest land-based wind facility in the world. In April 2005 Vilsack signed an executive order directing state agencies to generate at least ten percent of their electricity consumption from renewable energy resources. Vilsack boasted in his 2006 State of the State address of his efforts to make Iowa the leader in the nation in producing ethanol and biodiesel and third in the nation in wind-energy production.
The list of his legislative “to do’s” runs on. His Hawkeye Extended Medicaid and Iowa Cares Program expanded enrollment of both children and adults in state health care programs. (He touts the statistic that 92 percent of Iowans have health coverage.) Emblematic of his belief in government regulation, he angered druggists and allergy sufferers by restricting the sale of over-the-counter cold, flu, and sinus medications that contain pseudoephedrine ( a key ingredient in the making of methamphetamine ).With all of this government activity, Vilsack soon focused his energies on government itself. In imitation of Al Gore’s Reinventing Government, Vilsack’s “Results Iowa” initiative set “benchmarks” for every state agency and program and allowed citizens to monitor results on a government website.
Turning his sights to foreign policy as he enters the 2008 campaign, Vilsack has attracted attention by his calls for withdrawal of forces from Iraq and poignant tales of Iowa National Guard and military personnel injured or killed in war. In a Washington Post op-ed on February 10 Vilsack declared: “Congress has the constitutional ability and the moral responsibility to pass legislation cutting off funding for the status quo.” And if his pointed comparison to Hillary Clinton’s cautious approach was not obvious enough, he ended by saying: “Those who voted for the war, those who voted to continue to support the war and those who voted to continue funding the war can all surely vote to stop the war and do what’s right for our military personnel and nation. Not in 2008 or 2009, but now.”
So, in an election in which the most prominent Democrats seem to be vying to see who can be the newest, the most innovative Democrat, it is perhaps refreshing to have a traditional Democrat. Schmidt says succinctly: “He believes in government.” Vilsack certainly has shown an unbounded faith in the wonders of government to transform lives, a commitment to reform and fund the public sector, and an empathetic ear for the pacifist wing of the Democratic party. It would seem he’s the perfect candidate — for 1972. As for 2008, barring the collapse of multiple better-known and -financed candidates, his true calling may be a cabinet position in a Clinton or Obama administration where his passion for government can run rampant.
– Jennifer Rubin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.