For a moment on Wednesday at the DMACC Ankeny campus, an Iowa Democrat attending Hillary Clinton’s rural policy roll-out could have felt like they were back in 1998, with Clinton and Tom Vilsack sharing a campaign stage. And as Vilsack delivered a graceful, touching homage to his friend running for president, one could wonder if they were witnessing something else as well. Perhaps this was also a glimpse of the future, a beginning of the former governor’s return to Iowa politics.
Vilsack introduced and threw his support behind Clinton in an extended ten minute speech in Ankeny, which he apologized at one point for taking so long. He didn’t need to, however, as it was one of the most effective and moving endorsements I’ve seen in a very long time. For those who watched Iowa politics back when Vilsack was governor, his eloquence will come as no surprise, even if his oratorical skills aren’t always the first thing that comes to a typical voter’s mind when remembering Vilsack’s time in office.
“I personally know the pain of addiction,” Vilsack recalled as he lauded Clinton for including drug abuse prevention in her plan for rural America. “I grew up in a family after being adopted from an orphanage where my mom suffered from and was challenged by drug addiction and alcohol. I saw the pain. I saw what it meant to separate from my mother and live with my dad for a while. And I also saw the redemptive value of recovery.”
“The last time I talked to my father, the day before he died, was to tell him that I had been admitted to law school,” Vilsack continued. “He said, ‘I don’t know where the money’s going to come from’ because he had sold everything he owned to get me a chance at a college education. ‘So I don’t know where the money’s going to come from, but we’ll find a way.’ The next day he passed away, and the Social Security benefits and veterans benefits and student loans enabled me to have a career in law. That allowed me to come to this great state and practice in a small town and learn the values of Iowans, and how important family and community is.”
“So I like the idea that my presidential candidate has a plan to open that door for more and more young people who today feel that that door is closing and shut because of costs,” he added.
Vilsack reminisced briefly on why he ran and won in the first place, and how his administration expanded children’s healthcare access across Iowa. He mentioned that “you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but you gotta get elected,” perhaps as a subtle dig at Clinton’s primary opponents.
“And it takes something to get elected – I know a little something about that,” Vilsack noted.
Perhaps he was recounting his personal history for the benefit of the national press who may not know him as well. Maybe it was an intentional extended soliloquy to reacquaint Iowa activists with his story as he looks to a post-Obama administration future. Or, most likely, he just wanted to give his good friend Clinton a sincere endorsement that came from his heart.
Regardless, despite spending the last seven years as a cabinet official overseeing crop prices, food safety laws and international agriculture markets, Vilsack clearly hasn’t lost his political touch. His background is as humble and working-class as Joe Biden’s, even if he perhaps doesn’t have the same “Uncle Joe” flair that Democrats have come to love from the Vice President. But that basic human decency remains a hallmark of Vilsack, and one that still endears him to anyone who hears him in person.
Vilsack’s endorsement for Clinton is a nice get, but it’s not like it was in any way unexpected. The former Iowa Governor backed Clinton in her last run early on in March of 2007, just a month after he dropped his own long-shot bid for the presidency. It’s still notable that a member of President Obama’s cabinet endorsed Clinton while Vice President Biden still mulls his own run. Some questioned the timing, but that always seems like a silly point – who really cares if someone endorses this week instead of three weeks ago?
What does the future hold for Vilsack? If his ally Clinton wins the White House, he would likely be first in line for a cabinet position. But does he really want to be Secretary of Agriculture for life? Is there another top administration job he’s qualified for or has a big enough profile to fill? Others may claim the Commerce and Treasury Secretary slots, and it’s unclear if that’s a big upgrade anyway. Perhaps the former lawyer could nab the prominent U.S. Attorney General role. Or he might even get considered for a Supreme Court vacancy.
If the rest of Vilsack’s career doesn’t lie in a D.C. administration office complex, the Iowa electoral scene still beckons. Some may prefer a fresher face to carry Iowa Democrats into the future, like Tyler Olson, Liz Mathis or Andy McGuire. But plenty of activists would happily welcome back a proven winner who’s produced real results in government and whose humble, authentic life story remains the best Iowa Democrats have put forward on the ballot for decades. Much will depend upon the 2016 election, but Vilsack would be a prized recruit in any situation to take on Joni Ernst in 2020. Others may prefer a more familiar title in 2018: Governor Vilsack.
by Pat Rynard
Photo from Hillary for America Flickr page