Tom Vilsack's Chances

Tom Vilsack?

My friend Jamie is a smart woman. She isn’t from Iowa. She isn’t an orphan.

You’re with who? I said.

She’s with Tom Vilsack. And she has a theory....

Tom Vilsack, in case you don’t generally read down to the very last paragraph of articles about the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination, is a former two-term governor of Iowa, the first Democrat to be elected to the post in 30 years.

He was orphaned at birth, never knew his birth parents, and was given up to nuns in a Pennsylvania orphanage who arranged for his adoption. He describes himself as a child who was left behind, and an outsider since birth. He is not afraid; one of his basic themes is that we have to stop acting from fear.

That fearlessness (or foolhardiness, depending on your viewpoint) was amply on display last week at the mid-winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, where Vilsack seemed to go further than any of the candidates in demanding Congressional action to end the Iraq war. The criticism of his better-known rivals, including the two (Hillary Clinton and John Edwards) who voted to authorize the invasion, was hardly subtle.

"And let’s be honest,” he said (as opposed to?) “capping the number of American troops in Iraq is not real change; it’s staying the course. Removing them from harm’s way, and insisting that Iraqis take responsibility for their own future, that’s real change. And that’s what I will do as president...we don’t have time to wait. And there is no excuse for political calculation by this president – or by this Congress. American troops are dying at the rate of 1,000 a year...Congress has the constitutional responsibility and a moral duty to cut off funding for the status quo. Not a cap -- an end. Not eventually -- immediately."

The reason most Democrats are reluctant to use the funding power to try to end the war is because they are afraid of being accused of the cardinal sin in American politics: not supporting the troops. Sen. Clinton has spoken out in opposition to the latest troop surge; Sen. Edwards has gone a step further in calling on Congress not to fund the surge; but no one else has called for Congress to cut off funding for the war effort as a whole.

"And when this administration falsely claims – and we know they will – that cutting funding will hurt the troops, our answer is simple: President Bush, you will bear sole responsibility. Congress, hearing the will of the American people, is telling you to change course in Iraq and bring the troops home. Mr. President, our troops will only be in danger if you refuse to act."

That’s tough talk from a guy who has mostly positioned himself as a moderate rather than a flaming liberal. His supporters, my friend Jamie now included, trumpet his ability to win in a red state, his management of Iowa’s economy, his knowledge of commitment to alternative fuels, his role in improving education and increasing the availability of health insurance to the point that 92 percentstate’s kids are now covered.

Test scores for fourth and eighth graders improved substantially while he was governor, but Vilsack also understands that we need more than a nation of test takers. At one recent event, Jamie tells me, what most impressed her was when he talked about teaching kids to think outside the box, as he is trying to do in his campaign.

“He has to win Iowa, and we intend to do that. He has to do well in New Hampshire and he intends to do that. People can talk about any other candidates they want, we respect all of them, we invite them all to Iowa, but we fear none of them,” his wife Christie said in December.

Mrs. Vilsack made headlines four years ago, when her husband was reported to be on John Kerry’s short list for vice president, and an old column of hers about how certain people speak the English language made headlines for lack of political correctness.

"I am fascinated at the way some African-Americans speak to each other in an English I struggle to understand, then switch to standard English when the situation requires,'' she wrote in a local paper in 1994 when her husband was a state senator.

Easterners also came in for attack: “Later, on the boardwalk, I heard mothers calling to their children, 'I'll meet yoose here after the movie.' The only way I can speak like residents of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania is to let my jaw drop an inch and talk with my lips in an 'O' like a fish. I'd rather learn to speak Polish.''

Her comments about language may be ancient history, but her promises for her husband’s performance in the Iowa caucus could come back to haunt them in the nearer term. Can Vilsack win Iowa? He is currently running third or fourth, depending on the poll; if he beats either of the frontrunners, or even Edwards, that might be enough to spin him forward in the process; the danger of predicting victory is that anything less becomes defeat.

The news media has already divided the race into tiers, with Vilsack in the second one, a reflection less of his weaknesses than of the strength of the field. If Vilsack’s home state doesn’t put him in the first tier, no one else will.

Jamie has a theory that at some point, Obama will see himself as the perfect compliment to his fellow Midwesterner and the two could run together as a team. I have trouble following any scenario in which the high-flying Illinois senator agrees to trim his wings to run with the lower-flying former governor (maybe the other way around?), but there is no particular reason that Vilsack, with his record as an executive and his Iowa-friendly position on the war, couldn’t do well in his home state.

The challenge for him is to convince people in Iowa that people elsewhere take him sufficiently seriously, that he is more than a favorite son. My friend Jamie is an important step in that direction. More supporters like her and Vilsack has a chance.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was previously Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System,” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for

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