MyDD Interview with Tom Vilsack

Last Monday morning I had the opportunity to speak with former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for MyDD's program on Blog Talk Radio. At the time, Vilsack was still a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and though he has since dropped out of the race, this interview is nonetheless still germane to the discussion about the race for the Democratic nomination, particularly as it relates to the Iowa caucuses.

You can listen to the interview here over at Blog Talk Radio (it begins a few minutes into the program) or read the transcript below. Note: I will be posting my previously unpublished interview with another candidate who is still in the race, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, tomorrow morning at about 11:00 AM Eastern.

Jonathan Singer: Let's start off with kind of the central issue of the 2006 campaign and, it seems likely, the 2008 campaign, and that is Iraq. Assuming, and unfortunately I think it is fair to assume, that American troops will still be in Iraq on January 20, 2009, just because of the President's insistence on doing so. What would you do - what will you do as President starting January 20, 2009 to end American involvement in Iraq?

Tom Vilsack: Let me first of all say that I don't necessarily accept the premise of the question, which is there is nothing that can be done prior to January 20, 2009. I think it's incumbent upon everyone who is running for office, everyone who is in a position of authority and power in Washington, DC to do what they can to stop this war as quickly as we can.

There is no question that this is a civil war and our young men and women are in the middle of it. Our military has provided the Iraqis with the opportunity to form a government, create a nation and an economy, but they must take advantage of it. We can't force them to do so. So were I president today or were I president in January of 2009, the goal would be to get our troops out of harm's way as quickly as possible and end our involvement in this war.

Singer: In terms of what the new Democratic Congress could be doing within Washington... What would you like to see them do at this point? Would you like to see a clash between the legislative and executive branches over this? Do you favor the Murtha proposal? Or do you have a recipe of your own that you think they should undertake?

Vilsack: I think that Congress clearly under the constitution has the power of the purse, and I think it needs to exercise that power by telling the President that it is not the intention of this Congress to fund his escalation or to continue to fund the war. That has been done in the past, and when it has been done in the past the executive branch has acted responsibly and removed young men and women out of harm's way quickly and prevented death and destruction.

One thing I know for certain, and this is the only thing I know for certain in Iraq, and that is that if we fail to do this and fail to stop our involvement in this war, more of our young men and women will die. Folks make predictions about what will happen if we leave. I think that these are the same folks that told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They're the same folks that told us that the previous surges would work and be successful. They have not been. There is no reason why their predictions of chaos will necessarily hold true, and for that matter I would ask, simply, "What am I looking at every day when I turn on the news? How would you describe the situation in Iraq today if you didn't describe it as chaotic?" That's what civil wars are. And civil wars can only be resolved through political accommodation, not through a military response.

Singer: Let me ask you a related question. For many of us it seems like we're seeing the same situation play out as we saw three or four years ago in terms of the administration hyping intelligence and upping the rhetoric against Iran, as they did against Iraq a number of years ago. A) What do you think America should be doing towards Iran, and B) How do you think we can avert a war, which the President seems maybe intent on waging against Iran?

Vilsack: I do believe that Iran represents and has represented throughout the last four years and will likely continue to represent a much larger and dangerous threat and scenario to stability in the Middle East and stability around the world than Iraq ever presented. Its pursuit of a nuclear bomb is troublesome. Its assertions that it will do all it can to destroy our strongest ally in the region, Israel, are very disturbing. So it's clear that we must be engaged in a strong, aggressive diplomatic effort to convince the Iranians that it's not in their best interest or anyone's best interest for them to pursue this policy, and to change that policy.

That will require us to be engaged in conversations with the Iranians as opposed to ignoring them. The last several years this administration has taken the position that they are not interested in talking to the Iranians and not interested in talking to the Syrians. It may well be that we don't like these folks and may not agree with what they do and may very much dislike what they do, but the reality is you've got to continue to talk to people in the hopes that you can find a diplomatic resolution to lower the temperature in this region. And instead what we've done through our neglect, I think, is we have significantly increased the risk to Israel and to the security of our friends in that region.

Singer: Let's switch and talk a bit about a few domestic issues. Energy independence has been a central facet of your campaign. I want to ask you a little bit about ethanol. It's an important product from your state, with corn, but a number of people feel that maybe corn-based ethanol is not the most efficient way of creating ethanol. Down in Brazil I know they use things like sugar cane and hearty grasses to make ethanol. Is ethanol the solution? Or are there other steps that need to be taken to help America achieve energy independence?

Vilsack: First of all, let's talk about the importance and significance of this issue and why I have put so much of an emphasis on it. It is, in my view, the most important domestic issue confronting America. It is the vehicle by which we can assure that we'll never send men and women in harm's way to protect oil supplies. It is the issue that will allow us to regain moral leadership on the issue of climate change and climate control. It is the issue that will allow us to grow the economy and rebuild the middle class in this country. And it is the issue that will lead to healthier communities because it will substantially reduce emissions that are directly linked to an up tick in asthma. There is no other issue that intersects so many important domestic priorities than energy.

Secondly, corn-based ethanol was a good way to start this discussion, a good way to begin the process of committing ourselves to a renewable portfolio, a good way to begin a conversion from a petroleum-dependent economy to a petroleum-free transportation system. In the end it will not be the basis upon which we reach a petroleum-free transportation system. You allude to the fact that there are more efficient ways to produce ethanol and that's absolutely correct. And as technology improves you're going to see more substantial use of those alternate technologies than corn-based ethanol. You're going to see a transition, a transformation of ethanol corn-producing plants to bio-based producing plants. We're already seeing that in Iowa. There's a plant in Emmetsburg that's going to be converting to a biomass using the stock of corn and the hull of corn. You'll see switch grass, the hearty grasses that you referred to, including more efficient, as the technology gets perfected, to produce more ethanol per acre than corn and will use less water and less fertilizer.

So there are a multitude of opportunities here, which is why I'm excited here, in terms of the future of this country. It is absolutely something that can energize the economy and really begin to create real opportunities for folks, particularly in the middle.

Singer: A fellow governor, a former colleague of yours, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, has talked a lot about using coal and specifically coal gasification. Is that an idea that you'd be willing to incorporate into your energy independence plan?

Vilsack: The energy plan we call for is a graduated plan which first of all starts with a reduction of emissions and ultimately leads to carbon-free activities. So coal gasification is clearly a strategy for reducing emissions today and beginning that process and encouraging utility companies to begin embracing that technology or similar technologies.

But by 2020, I believe the utility industry ought to be in a place where it can, in fact, produce electricity without the necessity of creating carbon emissions or by using a process by which those emissions are basically placed back into the ground and so they're not put into the atmosphere. I think a cap-and-trade system using clean-burning coal, using renewable fuels and energy sources, a multitude of other options allow us to really significantly transition to a system that generates a substantial amount of emission.

Singer: I want to ask you about another issue upon which you kind of stand out from the rest of the pack, and that is No Child Left Behind. What do you see as the prescription for America's education system? What should the federal government be doing to better provide the states with the ability to provide their students with a quality education?

Vilsack: I don't think that No Child Left Behind and the philosophy behind it is necessarily the way to go. I believe that we need to hold the education system in this country accountable, but I think we need to be very clear about our expectations and we need to lay out very specifically what our belief is in terms of what the education system should be producing.

Rather than a nation of standardized test takers, I think we should be focused on innovative and creative thinkers. That means we ought to be focused on substantial support for early childhood to make sure that youngsters are ready to learn when they get to school and healthy. If they are healthy and ready to learn we will see a substantial reduction in the achievement gap and we'll see greater performance and we'll be able to maintain that creativity that we all know young children have.

If we focus on a Department of Education that creates new curriculum opportunities, looks for best practices in terms of a creative curriculum, a more rigorous and relevant curriculum to the needs of American society and economies today as opposed to an assembly line process, which is what we have today, I think will more beneficial and more helpful. I think if we have an education system that focuses on better training and better education of teachers, encouraging bright young people to get into the teaching profession with loan forgiveness programs and a variety of service-related opportunities that will allow them to be competitively paid, we'll be able to attract the brightest and the best to our classrooms. If we focus on a Department of Education that rewards schools that develop new leadership opportunities and better leadership opportunities for principals and superintendents and better training and evaluation of their leadership qualities, because at the end of the day that's what you need - you need principals and superintendents who are leaders in their respective schools. If we focus on graduation and the necessity of making sure that every youngster indeed graduates and we get him or her the support and assistance he or she needs to be able to graduate. All of these things need to be done as opposed to the fixation that we currently have on standardized test-taking and the penalties that we assess if school district do not progress as aggressively or as well as an arbitrarily established goal set in Washington has them.

Singer: I want to ask you just a couple questions about Iowa and kind of the politics of Iowa. The first one comes to us from a reader via instant messenger, and the question relates to an article in The New York Times Sunday by Adam Nagourney talking about how Iowa may have seen an end to the types of kitchen and living rooms forums that candidates once held. Now candidates are trying to hold much larger rallies in the hundreds and in fact thousands of people in attendance. What do you think about that trend? Do you think it's a positive or a negative trend? Or do you think that it's just maybe indicative of this early media frenzy?

Vilsack: First of all, I think if you only, as the national media has seemed to do, if you're only covering a couple of campaigns, you may get the impression that that's a trend. But the reality is that other campaigns are approaching the caucus in the right way, which is to say they are spending quality time with smaller groups of individuals talking about issues and responding to questions in the traditional format.

We've had what we refer to as "Tom team meetings", 15 of them and we have one more scheduled tonight and several scheduled on Friday, where we meet with 50, 60, 70, maybe 120 people at a time. We go to where they are. We don't compel them to come where we want them to be. We put them in an atmosphere and a place that's comfortable with them and then we open ourselves to questions, I open myself up to questions and try to respond to as many questions as I can in the time that we have for these meetings.

So I will tell you if the national media were to cover all of the campaigns instead of just a select few, they would find indeed it is not about rallies of 1,000 people it is really about these Tom team meetings and smaller meetings where you really build a base of support. And that's where you build the organization. It's pretty clear that they don't quite understand the caucus process as it exists today, and it hasn't changed that dramatically.

Singer: On a slightly related point, what's more important, a list of 1,000 shall we call them "ones" - core supporters, like you laid out - or polling, because polling seems to be ubiquitous today in Iowa? Which is more meaningful, a lead in the polls or a list of support like that?

Vilsack: Mark Mellman, who did the polling for John Kerry, had an interesting article recently, I think it was on a blog somewhere, where he talked about the fact that national polling that is done in Iowa and around the country is not an accurate reflection of what the strength will be for candidates at a caucus, and the reason being that the polls and those who conduct the polls do not use the appropriate screening mechanism for determining who, in fact, will be a caucus-goer. I think it is much more instructive to determine strength and possible outcome of a caucus to determine who has the field offices, who has the field staff, who's making contact on a regular basis with voters, and who has a list of individuals who are so committed that they're willing to have their name publicly associated with a campaign. That is the reason why we issued our list of over 1,100 supporters who are committed to our campaign. And I can tell you that there are quite a few since that list was published to be added to the list, and I don't believe there is another campaign in Iowa today that has the extensive field operation in the extensive amount of support that we do from real folks who are absolutely likely to go to a caucus.

Singer: One final question about Iowa. John Kerry wasn't able to win Iowa in 2004, but your party, the Democratic Party performed very well in Iowa, not only winning one heavily contested open seat in Congress but a second one that was not necessarily foreseen by a number of the pundits and you were able to help get elected a Democrat to succeed you as governor. Do you think that's indicative of a trend? How do you think Iowa will swing in 2008? Will the Democrats be able to bring it back to the fold?

Vilsack: I think it would certainly help for me to be at the top of the ticket, in terms of our ability to win Iowa. Having said that, we did have great success in November of 2006. For Democrats, we were able to win the governorship, as you indicated, and that's the first time that a Democrat has been replaced by a Democrat in 72 years. We took back the Iowa legislature, so we have the combination of governor and legislature in the control of Democrats for the first time in 42 years. And we also, as you indicated, took back a majority of the seats in Congress. In addition, over the course of the time that I was governor, we changed registration from a plus 45,000 Republicans over Democrats to a plus 15,000 Democrats over Republicans. So we were able to change voter registration patters, so we clearly have become a blue state as a result of our activities over the last eight years. And I think that would likely continue if I was at the top of the ticket.

Singer: Last and final question. If there was one message that you'd like to send out to the members of the progressive blogosphere, to the Netroots, what would that message be?

Vilsack:That message is to continue to ask those running for office and those in power today, "What have you done to stop the war? What are you going to do tomorrow to stop the war? And what can you do in the future to make sure we don't have future oil wars?"

And I think what you'll find the answer to that is don't fund the war and create an energy security plan for America that makes us ultimately not only less reliant but not reliant at all on petroleum for our transportation system.

Singer: Terrific. Well thank you so much for your time.

Vilsack: Thank you.


Tags: Interview, Iowa Caucuses, Tom Vilsack (all tags)



Re: MyDD Interview with Tom Vilsack

I thought Vilsack came across well in that interview.

by robliberal 2007-02-26 02:09PM | 0 recs
Re: MyDD Interview with Tom Vilsack

I never liked Vilsack's message on Iraq, which was basically "shame on the Iraqis for not being grown-up enough to take the wonderful opportunity we gave them."  I realize it plays better electorally than "America is evil and it's all our fault" (which isn't my preferred message either), but still, I feel like we're going to learn the wrong lessons from Iraq if the best the Democrats can do is blame it all on the Iraqis.

The first time I heard him use this talking point was in his Daily Show appearance and I recall Jon skewering him a couple weeks later as part of a montage of "Blame the Iraqis" politicians.  I don't think our politics should be about who can accuse the Iraqis of being the most subhuman.

by Steve M 2007-02-26 02:57PM | 0 recs
Re: MyDD Interview with Tom Vilsack

He was the best of the pack.  Solid, down-to-earth, and with ideas not just talking points; what the country really needs at this juncture.  So I was dismayed that he was ignored, not only in the MSM -- that was to be expected -- but also in the progressive blogosphere.  I mean, I'm a huge fan of Hillary.  As a Senator, she's terrific.  Same for Obama.  But for president . . . no.  Neither one.  

by Youffraita 2007-02-26 03:38PM | 0 recs
Re: MyDD Interview with Tom Vilsack

Great point he has - with the MSM frothing at the mouth, seemingly desperate for more and more news, would it kill them to actually cover ALL of the campaigns? I know, a church basement forum isn't as exciting as a dead has-been with huge boobs.. it just happens to be intensely more important.

by LandStander 2007-02-26 05:07PM | 0 recs


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