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Archive for Monday, March 5, 2007

Vilsack exit signals notable political shift

March 5, 2007

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My guess is that the withdrawal of former Gov. Tom Vilsack from the presidential race made no impression whatsoever on you. It may be that the abbreviated presidential campaign of Vilsack made no impression whatsoever on the 2008 race. But this much you can count on: The fact that Vilsack no longer is a candidate for president is one of the most significant things to happen in American domestic politics in a decade.

On any level, Vilsack was a plausible candidate for president. He was a governor, and governors have won major-party presidential nominations in each of the last seven elections. His departure leaves the Democratic field with a bunch of senators, notoriously poor performers as presidential candidates, and only one governor (Bill Richardson of New Mexico), and he's running as a foreign-policy magus. Go figure.

But there is more. Vilsack is from Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses; five times since 1960 a politician from a bordering state (four from Massachusetts, one from Maine) won the New Hampshire primary, and the 2008 candidacy of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is predicated in part on the neighbor factor, proof that familiarity can sometimes breed popularity.

And yet Vilsack is finished as a presidential candidate, even though, as he put it the day he left the race, "I have the boldest plan to get us out of Iraq and a long-term policy for energy security to keep us out of future oil wars," and despite having maybe the strongest caucus organization in Iowa, with 3,000 supporters already signed up.

None of that matters. He doesn't have the money to compete in the presidential race in a year when the field includes such big-buck candidates as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who both have star power plus drawing power among Hollywood stars, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has labor support, which is always important in Iowa and in the industrial states of the East and Midwest.

Now don't confuse this morning's homily with the moaning of goo-goo reformers who decry the presence of money in politics. In truth, there isn't all that much money in politics, not when you compare the amount that a modern presidential campaign spends to unveil its candidate with the amount that a Fortune 500 company spends to unveil a new product. This is simply a statement that our politics has changed, and changed utterly.

But think this through: Vilsack is not saying he cannot compete in the far-flung locales of presidential politics, in some half-forgotten town in Nevada or some frigid outpost in New Hampshire hard by the Canadian border. No, he's saying he can't even compete in his own state, where he can sleep in his own bed, travel in his own car, even take along a brown-bag lunch with a tuna sandwich, a juice box, a clementine and a cookie.

The whole Vilsack campaign was based on making an impact in Iowa, and then sitting back and watching the money flow into his Web site as he rented a campaign plane to fly his entourage, including fawning reporters, to New Hampshire, which is so small that there is barely anywhere you can't reach by cheap rental car. The cost of that rental car, by the way: $28.25 a day next January, including taxes and fees. I checked.

But this field is so dominated by money that Vilsack can't drive to the town of Nevada, Iowa (pronounced differently from the state of Nevada, and - trust me - a whole lot different, especially in winter), and he can't drive from Nashua to Manchester to Concord and then maybe over to Keene in New Hampshire, handing out brochures and talking about issues and fibbing about how he has always wanted to see the Granite State in all its frosty winter glory.

This changes our politics considerably. Jimmy Carter carried his own bag and slept on couches in Iowa in 1975, won the caucuses in 1976, and was inaugurated president in 1977. You might argue that he wasn't the greatest president ever (his greatest glory was after he left the White House), but he sure learned a lot about the country even as the country was learning a lot about him. George H.W. Bush was not an adept campaigner in Iowa (which he lost in 1988) and New Hampshire (which he barely won in 1988 and then again in 1992), but he learned a lot about campaigning, and a lot about himself, in the exercise.

All this is gone, and has been for some time. Much of New Hampshire is a suburb of Boston, and no better for it, and now a former two-term governor of Iowa has added his testimony that the Hawkeye State is going to let television and money, not steak fries and conversations over fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, determine who wins the caucuses. That's a big difference, and as a result we're a different country. Tom Vilsack witnessed that change and was a victim of it.

You should not doubt that those cornpone scenes in Iowa and New Hampshire were always a bit staged, with bales of hay brought in for the press to use as risers. But the people who attended those scenes were authentic even if the candidates were complete phonies.

I remember trampling through farm mud on a particularly cold day in Iowa more than two decades ago for a bone-chilling barnyard session on rural issues. The people in the audience were angry, white-hot angry, and the candidates on the stage, thinking that farm supports were the planks of wood that kept the barn from falling in, were clueless, completely so. But amid my shivers I vividly remember thinking how much better the world would have been had Yuri Andropov, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, been required to stammer through an answer to these farmers before he got the top job. Our country, too.

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