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Insider Interview: Tom Vilsack's Democratic Optimism

The Fix has embarked on a project to sit down with each and every one of the candidates contemplating a 2008 White House run to give readers a sense of these politicians -- from a political, policy and personal perspective.

Tom Vilsack says Democrats can win elections if make it clear to voters that they care about their values. (AP File Photo)

These profiles will run occasionally as part of our weekly "Insider Interview" feature.  In addition to the story, you'll find a full transcript of the interview.

The lead-off "Insider Interview: 2008" is Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

Tom Vilsack believes that the Democrats' path back to the White House and to majority status in Congress revolves around one word -- "community."

"I think a lot of people value community," said Vilsack. "It's a terrific value for the Democratic Party and it's something all Democrats can get excited [about]." 

Vilsack believes that by beginning conversations within the context of community, Democrats can insulate themselves from Republican attacks on so-called values questions. "What Republicans have done in my view is that they are systematically dismantling a sense of community in America," he said.  To cast themselves as the rebuilders of the idea of community, Democrats talk about issues liked health care, national security and education from a values perspective, which can turn the debate on its head. "I think Democrats can talk that way and if we do we are going to be successful in elections," Vilsack said.

Vilsack points to his eight years as governor of Iowa as a blueprint for the success of Democrats on the national level. A state senator when he ran for governor in 1998, Vilsack was an underdog in the primary and general election but won both to become the Hawkeye State's first Democratic governor since 1968. In his reelection race in 2002 he carried approximately two-thirds of the state's 99 counties and won with 53 percent of the vote.

Over the course of his two terms, Vilsack has sought to address a wide-ranging palette of issues including two that most Democratic strategists see as crucial to the 2008 presidential race: --energy and education.

On energy, six new power plants have been built in the state during Vilsack's tenure and he has moved to capitalize on Iowa's agricultural assets to make it a leader in alternative fuel sources like ethanol and soy diesel -- the state now produces more of both products than any other state in the country.

On education, Vilsack touts the fact that among "early learners" in Iowa, test scores have increased for five straight years after an eight-year period of declines. He also touts an early childhood program that "not only provides access to pre-school but also understands the importance of quality childcare and the importance of parents being their child's first and best teacher" -- although he acknowledges he must work to ensure the programs continue to be funded beyond his time on office.  During the upcoming 2006 Iowa legislative session, Vilsack is hoping to pass a bill that increases teacher compensation to "keep our best and brightest in the classroom."

Vilsack seems to be casting policies around a sense of optimism. "The bottom line is that we've transformed the state into a great place to live, work and raise a family," he said. "And we've provided hope." Vilsack is clearly proud of his time as governor. "It's really an unbelievable story," he said. "I would stack [my] record up against any governor in our state's history and for that matter any governor in the country today."

He will likely have that chance in the coming year as Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) are seen as likely contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2008.  For his part, Vilsack insists he has not even thought yet about a bid, although as he moves around the country he said "there are some who are encouraging me and suggesting to me that I should think about that."

Vilsack is doing some planning for a potential national bid, including aggressively raising money into Heartland PAC -- a soft-money 527 that he founded last April. In the final six months of 2005, Vilsack raised $977,000 for the PAC, a sum that includes a $100,000 donation from New York financier Lewis Cullman and a $50,000 contribution from Hawkeye State power broker Jerry Crawford. Vilsack also has two political consulting firms on retainer -- Yost Gold Consulting and the Dewey Square Group.

In addition to his aggressive fundraising, Vilsack has put considerable thought into the alleged failings of the Bush administration and how a Democratic commander-in-chief would handle things differently on issues ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the war in Iraq to the composition of the Supreme Court.

Referring to Bush's Jan. 31 State of the Union speech, Vilsack said the president failed to ask the American public to play a role in handling these contentious issues. "There is no sense that we're in this together," said Vilsack. "And I think that's what leadership is about."

While a presidential candidacy is clearly part of Vilsack's long-term calculus, in the near term he is focused on expanding Democrats' hold on governor's mansions across the country. He listed open seats in New York and Massachusetts as "competitive opportunities" and rattled off Arkansas, Ohio, Florida and Nevada as other Democratic targets.

As for his home state of Iowa, Vilsack's low key demeanor was punctured when it was suggested that Rep. Jim Nussle (R) was running a solid gubernatorial campaign. "Really?" asked Vilsack. "This is a man who came to Congress as a fiscal hawk who is now the architect of the largest federal deficit we've had in a long time."

The full transcript of my interview with Gov. Vilsack is online here.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 6, 2006; 5:28 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview  
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Next: Nevada Senate: Goodman vs. Ensign?

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