Friday, December 01, 2006

Tom Vilsack’s Wonderful Life

by Bernie Quigley - for The Free Market News Network, 12/01/2006

Tom Vilsack, Governor of Iowa, gave a confident speech in his native place yesterday to a beautiful heartland crowd which might have come from a Frank Capra movie. It will come to mind again this Christmas when we watch the Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, as the Vilsacks seem to live in George Bailey’s mythical town and Tom appears to be its mayor.

Like Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith, George Bailey and all of Capra’s heroes, Vilsack sees himself as the underdog Democrat running for President in 2008.

“I have always been an underdog and a long shot,” he said. “I’ve always been inspired by the stories of ordinary citizens who worked hard, overcame adversity and succeeded.”

Pure Capra. But I don’t think he planned it like that. It’s just like that in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Vilsack’s adopted hometown. It’s a church supper, college football crowd of unpretentious farm folk. The kind of town which Capra saw to be the American nirvana – the core of the country’s spiritual sensibilities and the wellspring of its inner life. Vilsack’s life in fact, reads like a Capra script: Born an orphan in Pittsburg and adopted by a loving but alcoholic mother and raised by a single father who grew deeper and deeper into poverty.

“I know what it means to be alone,” he told the crowd.

But for Vilsack, alone was only a starting point. Fate brought him to his father-in-law’s law office in small-town Iowa and he was suddenly called to service when a disturbed citizen busted into a City Council session and killed the mayor. From there he almost inexplicably ended up as Governor; and a Democratic governor in the reddest of states. When he turns over the keys to the new Governor next month Democrats will control Iowa’s legislature and the Governor’s office for the first time in four decades.

The press and pundits waiting for him in Washington also see Vilsack as a long shot. But they yearn for the return of a season past rather than the day ahead. They need to watch Frank Capra this Christmas to see where America comes from and where it is restored. And they need to learn how to count.

That’s the advise of Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who ran Mark Warner’s race for Governor of Virginia in 2001, the first indication of a paradigm change in politics when a Connecticut-reared, Harvard-educated Nextel entrepreneur turned the tide of heartland Republicanism simply by treating country people as his equals. They also had a hand in Jim Webb’s significant victory this past month in Virginia and have written a book on their strategy called Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ‘em Out. It is virtually a manual for running for political office here at the burgeoning Third Millennium.

First off, they tell Democrats: Learn How to Count.

In the fifty states, they remind us, there are 535 Electoral College votes; adding 3 for D.C. and there are 538 total Electoral College votes. Divide 538 by 2 and you get 269 votes. Thus, to win the White House, a candidate has to get 269 plus 1 to have a majority of Electoral College votes.

But Democrats don’t seem to get this math, they say, and simply write off 20 primarily southern and rural states and their total 164 electoral votes. In the last Presidential election the Democrats conceded 227 electoral votes in twenty-seven states to Bush before any votes were actually cast.

The Democrats cannot win this way. If they want to be taken seriously again in Presidential politics they have to find a candidate who will appeal to the heartland. They make the point that most rural and heartland states began their political destiny as Democratic.

Today, influential Democratic strategists still look to the cities and the suburbs in hopes that the Electoral College will just go away. Press people as well, being city folk, share this delusion and continually project candidates more suited to the salad bar and the wine and cheese tasting rather than the NASCAR track. How many rural and red states are proposed Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama likely to win today? In Iowa, John Edwards leads the unannounced pack, but not by much. And as Jarding said in a recent newspaper article, not by enough.

But that was last week and this is now. Iowans are not going to give him a free pass, Vilsack told The New York Times, assessing his chances in the caucuses to be held in 13 months, “And they shouldn’t.”

Good spirit. Nevertheless, I think Vilsack just won the Iowa caucus. And as those of us who worked for Wesley Clark in the New Hampshire primary learned at the very beginning of the curve in 2004, it was all about Iowa. As Frank Capra suggests, maybe it should be.

“The Democrats must get off this cultural high ground they have been living on for the past twenty-five years,” write Jarding and Saunders. “When you want to represent people, you have to talk to them where they live. Talk to them about what they like to do for fun, what makes life enjoyable for them, what their fears are. And when you find out that they like NASCAR races, that they like country or bluegrass music, that they like to hunt or fish, don’t pass judgment on them. Embrace them.”

Some I can’t see at the NASCAR track, but others I can. Mark Warner I can, Jim Webb I can, Kathleen Sebelius, Governor of Kansas, I can, Wes Clark I can, and Tom Vilsack I can. It should be the everyman stop as Pat’s Steaks in Philly was or as the Irish pub in South Boston was in industrial days now past. And if candidates feel uncomfortable there then perhaps they don’t belong in Presidential politics. They will be writing off 227 electoral votes. Anyway, watching Vilsack’s speech last night on C Span I think he’s already got those votes. And he doesn’t need to hire Mudcat to seem regular.

“Three weeks ago, Americans courageously voted to create change,” Vilsack said. “We sent a clear message that we wanted our country led in a new and better direction. But our job is not done. We have more work to do . . . That is why I am here today - to continue our work, and to bring the courage to create change to America. It will take leadership to create this change. But it also will take an active sense of community.

“Together, with the courage to create change, let us build a 21st Century economy of cutting-edge companies and technologies that lead us to energy security. Energy security will revitalize rural America, re-establish our moral leadership on global warming and climate security and eliminate our addiction to foreign oil.

“Together, with the courage to create change let us embrace a new foreign policy that renews friendships, develops alliances and isolates enemies. In Iraq, we must act, take our troops out of harm's way and allow Iraqis to begin providing their own security.”

This last phrase blends well with those elsewhere today in The Washington Post, as Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks report that James A. Baker’s bipartisan Iraq Study Group plans to recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis, setting the first goal for a major drawdown of U.S. forces.

"Everybody understands that we're at the end of the road here,” one of the sources told the reporters.

The country people in places like Tobaccoville, North Carolina, Haverhill, New Hampshire and Mount Pleasant, Iowa, say that when the Lord closes one door, He opens another.

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