Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack
Interview With The Fix's Chris Cillizza
Monday, February 6, 2006 5:13 PM's Chris Cillizza interviewed Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) as part of an ongoing series of conversations with potential 2008 presidential candidates. A transcript of the interview is below:

What did you find to like in the [State of the Union] speech?

I was very disappointed in the speech. This country has a lot of serious challenges. ... Democrats have always historically referred to our families as working families, and I have sort of changed that moniker. I think what we have is a nation of worried families -- families that are concerned about job security, families who thought their pensions were secure and now have questions, families who continually have pressure to provide health care to their family and are seeing increased costs or their employer saying we can no longer provide coverage. Families who are trying to figure out how to pay college expenses that continue to rise, families that are a littler mystified about how they are paying more at the pump and one company [ExxonMobil] records record profits -- $36 billion dollars of net profits, which by the way is more than all the major corporations in Iowa's net profits combined last year.

I was hoping the president would speak to those concerns and anxieties and relieve people by telling them that we as a nation will act as a single community to accept those challenges, that we will set high standards and goals for ourselves and for our children and that we are going to have a government that is going to help us reach those goals.

For all intents and purposes, that was not done. President Bush spent a good part of his speech, very politically astute craftily playing the security message. I liken it, to use a football analogy since this is Super Bowl week, it's as if the President came up to the line, and he's the quarterback of the offense, and he said to the defense, which would be the Democrats, "We're going to run an off tackle play here between the right guard and the right tackle. We're going to give it to the halfback. And we're going to tell you in advance what we're running because we don't think you can stop it." I think that's precisely what he did last night.

This was an extraordinarily important opportunity for the president of the United States to relieve anxiety. I don't believe he did that and I was very disappointed that he didn't do it.

One of the points Bush was most forceful on was the NSA domestic surveillance program. You have, in contrast to Al Gore and some other Democrats, said "Let's not jump to conclusions here." Can you outline where you come down on the NSA program, how much agreement you are in with the president on it and whether you think that is the kind of issue Democrats can run on and win on or not?

What I'm suggesting is that things have changed a lot since 1972[*] when the laws were passed. Technologies have improved; clearly the threat is different than it was in 1972. To the extent that the law doesn't draw the bright line that it needs to, doesn't create a clear path as to how you got about doing appropriate surveillance without infringing on civil liberties,it clearly needs to be clarified. And I think that's where the debate ought to be. If Democrats want to be critical of this president, they can certainly in terms of the competency with which this administration has handled the whole homeland security/national security set of issues.

I was in Arizona recently, as the governor of Arizona pointed out three-quarters-of-a-million people enter our country illegally through one state - through her state - every year. It's pretty hard to make the case that you're doing the job in homeland security when you cannot assure the people of this country that the borders are secure, you cannot assure the people of this country that the ports are being properly inspected, you can't assure the people that you have developed a coordinated intelligence system that works with not just the various federal agencies but also state and local agencies, law enforcement agencies. None of that has been done satisfactorily.

So I believe that Democrats ... have a responsibility to point out that this administration has handled homeland security incompetently. I think that if we focus on that we will find a receptive audience. As they say a picture is worth a thousand words. The reality is we have a prime example of this administration's incompetency when it comes to protecting people in terms of the circumstances surrounding [Hurricane] Katrina. If I had been a resident or former resident of New Orleans, I would have been very disappointed with my president last night that he did not address in greater detail steps that were going to be taken to make sure that we never had a natural disaster handled so poorly again and that we didn't risk peoples lives. It's all well and good to start talking about Coretta King, but I cannot imagine she was very happy with the way African Americans were treated during that disaster.

On the issue of Iraq, where do you part company with Bush about what we need to do there?

I found it interesting that the president suggested substantial and significant confidence in the military in terms of being able to make decisions as to when it would be appropriate to with withdraw troops -- as he didn't listen to the military when he went into Iraq. Military leaders at the time suggested that in order to do the job properly you would need substantially greater numbers of troops. There's research, there's data on this. When you occupy a country there are certain ratios that history tells you are successful in terms of having sufficient troops and plan and strategies to be able to do it successfully.

The planning was incompetent in terms of the aftermath of the war because we clearly didn't have enough troops and we clearly didn't engage Arab nations in providing assistance in putting together security forces that might have made it a little easier for us to secure the country. We didn't secure ammunition sights, we didn't secure the borders. There were a whole series of things we didn't do. Now the president says he is going to listen to the military. I found that interesting. I think the future of Iraq depends on the competent way we handle the strategy. I think our people on the ground are doing everything they're asked to do and more. And I think they're doing a terrific job. ...

My view is that we could do a better job of securing critical areas in the country so that Iraqis would appreciate that this is what secure communities, secure neighborhoods, secure cities look like and this is what we can do within a secure country and therefore they would be more inclined to want to take over the responsibilities. There is progress being made on the military side, but I am still not certain that we've got the law enforcement side of this handled properly. And it's with understandable reason because our troops aren't trained to be law enforcement people; they're trained to be soldiers.

Let's talk about Iowa. You still have a year left on your second term. What is Tom Vilsack's legacy as governor of Iowa. What would you like it to be and is that different from what you think it will be?

Legacies are defined by others. I would find it difficult for myself to respond to that question. Let me just tell you what I think has happened in my state. I think I have had a part of it but there were 3 million other people that were involved in this.

When I came into the governorship we had 70 years of out migration, bright young people leaving the state believing that there wasn't a future. We had stagnant economy with stagnant job growth and stagnant incomes. We had a commodity-based economy where we weren't doing as much as we probably should have been doing with the crops we raised or the products we manufactured. We had many many families that didn't have access to health care or certainly didn't have access to health care insurance. We had no long term health care plan and we were energy dependent, meaning we were importing energy into our state because we weren't producing enough to meet our needs.

So, what we've done, I think, in a relatively short period of time is we've transformed the state and created a sense of hope, optimism and a brighter future for Iowa and Iowa's children. We've done this by an energy policy which some believe one of the best energy policies in the country where we encourage the construction of new facilities. Six new power plants have built we've now become a renewable and clean energy leader in terms of our promotion of wind energy.

We have restored confidence in the fact that there are things exciting to do in out state, invested resources in communities through a program called "Vision Iowa" - 213 projects, over $2 billion of investment in cultural and recreational opportunities. We've reversed the outmigration so for the first time in 70 years we have more college experienced workers in our workforce - we're keeping our young people. Last year the state of Iowa was either first or second in per capita income growth in the nation. We have the fastest growing economy in the Midwest and the eighth fastest growing economy in the country. We are now the renewable fuel leader producing more ethanol and soy diesel than any state in the country. We've expanded access to health care to 98,000 more children through our Children's' Health Insurance Program/Expanded Medicaid program. We've created a senior living trust which provides a continuum of care for seniors so we've helped 34,000 seniors avoid going into a nursing home before it was their time. We've expanded access to health care to veterans by aggressively promoting the fact that they've earned these benefits and are entitled to them. We created a program unlike any in the country to provide health care coverage to all families under 200 percent of poverty, which is very experimental and has been very successful in the first eight months of its life. We've adopted mental health parity so we've really expanded access to health care.

We've improved education, our test scores had been declining for eight consecutive years among our early learners. We now have had five consecutive years of increases in test scores. We are working on a creative and innovative way to compensate our teachers and reform education which is a main focus of this year's legislative session and we've started an early childhood program that not only provides access to pre school but also understands the importance of quality child care and the importance of parents being their child's first and best teacher.

Bottom line is that we've transformed the state into a great place to live, work and raise a family. And we've provided hope. An, how do I know that? The significant majority of Iowans think the country is headed in the wrong direction but a strong majority of Iowans think the state is headed in the right direction.

What have you not been able to get done that you wanted to?

Well ... we need to finish some of the work that we've started and that's the importance of this year. We need to make sure we more adequately fund our early childhood initiatives so that it sustains itself in future years and we need to do more in terms of increasing teacher compensation so that we're able to keep our brightest and best in our classrooms. We have a challenge in that regard. We've been able to do all of this with a state government that has actually shrunk in size, a state government that has in terms of its budget has grown by less than a percent/percent and a half a year for the last seven years. And we've gone from the twelfth heaviest tax burdened state to the 40th. And we've had tax relief every year that I have been governor. So this is a pretty remarkable record.

In terms of what I haven't been able to do, I mean there are some things that I would have loved to have been able to do with simplification of our tax system that we've not been able to get accomplished because it bucks a very strong special interest in Iowa that funds primarily Republican legislative races.

We've also reengaged the business community in having confidence in government. They came to us and they said, "We want to help improve your processing, the paperwork that you do, we want to create a more efficient government." And so we have literally reduced times for permitting without reducing the quality of the work that we do from months to days, from years to weeks.

It's really an unbelievable story. I would stack that record up against any governor in our state's history and for that matter any governor in the country today.

Let me ask you about your role at the Democratic Leadership Council. What do you think distinguishes centrist Democrats from other Democrats at this point?

I think we all share the same goal, which is a United States of America that inspires people and leads. I think the DLC isn't about distinguishing itself, it's about helping create a message and a set of policies and principles that enable us to make the case effectively to people in the middle who aren't particularly partisan, aren't particularly political who every couple of years are asked to make important decisions about leadership.

But you think centrist Democrats are the same as liberal Democrats? You think that there is no particular ideological split within the Democratic Party today?

I think it is more a difference of opinion about strategy to get to a common goal than that the goal is different. I don't know of a Democrat -- whether they're a conservative, a centrist or a liberal Democrat -- that doesn't think that it's important to have quality jobs that pay decent wages so that families can support themselves, so that they can have the dignity of being able to afford health care put money aside for pension buy a home, afford college education.

There probably aren't Republicans who disagree with that either in terms of those general principles you're outlining.

I don't know if there is a Democrat who necessarily doesn't believe health care is a right instead of privilege. There is a significant between us and the Republican Party on that issue. I think there are some Republicans who truly believe access to health care and the extent of health care you get is more a privilege than it is about a right.

I think that Democrats traditionally, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, believe in the public education system. Now there may be difference of opinions about what needs to happen in that public education system to make it stronger and better and more effective, but there isn't a genuine dislike for public education or the institution that it represents. I think in the Republican Party there are serious folks who really would prefer not to have a public education system.

I think Democrats, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, ... we understand the role of courts in providing a level playing field. I think there are some Republicans who would like to see access to courts restricted so that maybe the playing field isn't as quite as level as it should be. So I think there are fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans and within the Democratic Party it's just a question of how you message it.

Take Iraq for example. Congressman Murtha says get the troops out within six months. Other people say there ought not to be any timetable. That seems to me to be a significant difference not of strategy but of a genuine policy difference.

Well, I don't know that that's necessarily correct because I think the goal here is to have a safer, more secure world and there are some who believe we're not contributing to that by a continued presence in Iraq and there are others who feel we have to finish the work in Iraq in order to reach that goal. I think that's the same goal, it's just a different approach towards that goal.

I think Iraq is very very complex and it doesn't lend itself to simplistic answers. If you understand the history of that area, there is nothing simple about that area, absolutely nothing. The history of it is extraordinary. We think of history in terms of a couple hundred years, we're talking thousands of years in that area of the world. We won't be a safer world if that area of the world is unstable if there is a civil war within a country of for that matter a regional civil war. I don't think we would be safer. And I think we have an obligation to make sure that when we leave Iraq - and we should leave Iraq, we shouldn't have a permanent presence there - when we leave Iraq we leave it in a position where it can fend for itself, where it's stable and where it can help us stabilize a very unstable part of the world because all of us will be safer when that happens. It frankly does not lend itself to quick and easy solutions.

Had you been in the Senate last week, would you have voted to support the filibuster on Samuel A. Alito Jr. or not?

I would not have. I would have voted against the judge, Justice Alito. I did not agree with his views about the strength of the executive branch and the deference that he appears to give to executive branch decisions. I don't have much confidence that he is going to rely on precedent when it comes to issues surrounding choice. So, I would have voted against him. But it was pretty clear that the votes were not there for a filibuster, and I'm not quite sure what we would have accomplished with that. I don't know all the facts, and I wouldn't presuppose to prejudge the folks who made the decision to do this because they know more about it than I do because they've lived it.

Do you think it hurt the party to go through that exercise in which they fell as far short as they did?

You know I think most folks are trying to figure out whether they got a job, whether they got health care, whether their pensions are going to be secure. I honestly don't know that they spend a lot of time thinking about whether, "I'm going to vote for a Democrat because they filibustered or because they don't like this guy whose name I probably can't even pronounce."

So why do you think then that the public's concerns is where you are talking about, why do you think the people who pushed the filibuster felt the need to do that?

You'd have to ask them that. I don't know.

Regardless of how you view the relationship between the wings of the Democratic party, if you read the blogs and you talk to some folks on the more liberal end there is clearly an antagonism that they view the DLC as symbolic of between that they call centrists and the liberal wing of the party. How do you deal with that tension?

I think it's a two step process and maybe some don't see it that way. First of all, we have got to stem the tide; we have to plug the dike so to speak. We've got a Republican Congress, we've got a Republican president. I will tell you that my view of both is that they're a bit checked out in terms of what really matters and what's going make a difference to ordinary folks lives. Clearly the president's speech ... in my view didn't address any of the anxieties. There was nothing personal about it. I mean just take health care for example. Health savings accounts. What does that mean? I think I know what it means. I think it means we are somehow going to encourage you to put money aside so that you can better be able to afford health care. But you know what? For ordinary folks out there who are balancing a check book and are paying more for gas and see Exxon getting $36 billion, they don't have any money to put aside for health savings accounts.

So I think it's important for Democrats to win elections in the short term ... so that we can begin to reverse the tide and direction that Republicans have created. What Republicans have done in my view is that they are systematically dismantling a sense of community in America. There are two great institutions in my view in the American experience: one is the self made, hardworking individual who does well and dreams big dreams and accomplishes them. But that person is always surrounded by a strong community, and what Republicans have done with their policies is they've sort of ignored the whole sense of community in America. There was no ask last night for us to sacrifice. There was no call to us for a common purpose. There was no effort to try and unite this country towards a big goal, an inspiring goal. So I think it's important for Democrats win election because I think Democrats can do that and I think they can build a new America, they can restore faith in the American dream.

I think it's a long term process to make the nation more progressive than it is today, but you are not going to do that unless you are able to stem the tide today and set into place a process, which Republicans have done very effectively over the last 40 years, of creating think tanks and a political operation and a communications systems that has moved the country to a more conservative bent. So I think in a sense we're sort of both right. We've got to win elections and we've got to set in place a system that over a period of time makes America more progressive and a better place.

And what do you say to the folks who say we'd rather lose an election on our principles than win it with a centrist Democrat?

My response would be several words: Katrina, Judge Alito, Judge Thomas, going to war without proper intelligence.

You believe all of those things would have been avoided if there was a Democrat in office?

I will go to my grave believing this emphatically -- you never put a political appointee in charge of FEMA. You never disregard the important work that you have in an emergency situation because lives are on the line. You take that very seriously. The Bush administration obviously did not take it seriously. They put a guy in office who had no clue what his job was. I was on conference call during Katrina and I can tell you there was no indication that that man was checked in at all. I don't think there is any doubt Katrina would have been handled much differently with a Democratic administration.

There's no question that Justice Roberts and Justice Alito would never have been nominated by a Democratic president. And I believe that we would not have approached the decision-making in Iraq with an ideological bent. The commander in chief in our administration would have asked all of the difficult questions and would have demanded accurate information before making the decision to put people in harm's way.

So I think the world would be much different if Al Gore were president or if John Kerry were president.

When you say ... the president didn't summon Americans to come together for a great cause [in his State of the Union address], I assume he would say fighting and winning the war on terror would qualify as a great cause of this era. Do you disagree?

What did he ask us to do? How do we contribute to that? What did he ask us to do? He basically told us to be fearful. The world's a dangerous place, and it is. We have to protect ourselves. ... But what did he call us to do. Let me give you an example from back in my childhood .... When the Russians put Sputnik up into the sky many people viewed that as a serious security risk, felt the Russians had significant advantages. Americans and American children were asked to be study to be involved in math and science, to be engaged in an effort to strengthen our country in those areas so that we would be in a position to respond. Then our president essentially told us we were going to go to the moon. We were called. ... I think the president could have done that [in his speech] and he could have said not only do we have to deal with issues of terror but we also have to deal with the insecurities at home, the insecurities that frankly I think amplify the concerns we have on homeland security.

Seventy thousand autoworkers were told they're history. Now that doesn't just affect those families. That's a headline that every American family probably read or heard at some point in time in the last couple of weeks. That sends a message that there is no such thing as job security in America today. [The president] could have pointed out that we are indeed in a competitive circumstance that requires America to be the most innovative and creative nation on earth and in the history of mankind. And he could have within the framework of challenging us to be that most creative and innovative nation he could have tied in the importance of energy independence and technology and clean energy and how we are going to address that.

Instead of saying we are going to focus on more math and science teachers (all of which is important), he could have actually talked to the children of the country. And he could have said you've got important job. Presidents never talk to the children of this country. He's talked to teachers, he's talked to adults. He's never talked to the children. There is no sense that we're in this together. And I think that is what leadership is about. And a president ... in the second year of a second term has one more shot to really fundamentally make a difference, and all he seems to be concerned about is the first part of his speech. And frankly the way it was couched and phrased it was much about politics as it was about national interest. And I just don't think that's what a president in his address should be doing.

You have talked since the 2004 election about problems the Democratic Party has had particularly in small town America, rural America and the party's seeming inability to deal with values-based issues. One of the things that you have said is that this notion that voters somehow go against their own interests is a foolish assumption for Democrats to make. What do you mean by that?

First of all, I think that many of us have had success in communicating to folks in small towns and rural areas. That's why we've got a number of Democratic governors in red states -- Kathleen Sebelius, Brad Henry you know the list. Those people obviously have been able to communicate effectively. Well first of all if you talk to an affluent Democrat, someone who is really wealthy and you say, "Did you vote for the Democrat this time? What do you think of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy? Don't like 'em. Aren't you voting against your economic self interests there?"

I can't assume that I know what's important to you. I shouldn't assume that and I certainly shouldn't make a judgment about you, I shouldn't do that. What I should say, I think, is that I should listen to you and when you tell me that you're worried about your family, that you're worried about job security, that you're worried about the safety and security of your children I should respond to that. I shouldn't say, "well really you shouldn't think that. You should think what I think." I should say "That's an interesting point and what role does government have in allaying those fears. What can we do?

That's the kind of conversation that successful Democrats are having people all across the country and I think in the context of this year there are 36 opportunities in governors races to have that kind of conversation, and I think that's the conversation we're going to have. I think we're going to say "Look we know it's a tough situation out there, we know you're worried and we got a plan. We're going to improve the economy of our state. We know you're worried about your children's education, by golly, we're going to do some things that are going to make it stronger. Unless there is a national response to health care, we're going continue at the state level to try to address and meet that concern that you have. And we're going try to keep your kids safe. We're going focus on homeland security at the ground level; and we're going focus on keeping methamphetamine away from your kids and we're going focus on making sure sexual predators don't have any access to your children. Those are the things we're going to do and hopefully that speaks to the concerns that you have."

The other thing I think I do -- and I think successful candidates for governor have done -- is we put this in language that conveys to folks that we respect their value system. We can understand it and we can respect it. That's why I talk a lot about community. I think a lot of people value community. It's a terrific value for the Democratic Party and it's something all Democrats can get excited. And I think when you talk about that value and you say, "In a strong community or because I believe in a strong community health care is a right not a privilege, I believe in a strong community and that strong community has an obligation and responsibility to provide a public education system that is going to prepare your youngster for the most challenging future they're going to face, I believe in a strong community which means we are going to protect you and your family - that's an obligation we have, I think Democrats can talk that way and if we do we are going to be successful in elections. I am not going to question someone's values, I am going to listen and respect those values.

Are you running for president?

It's 2006 right? I have a job and I take that job very seriously as governor of the state. And I have a very aggressive legislative agenda that I am working on to get passed and I am focusing on that. And I'm also focusing on helping my party - specifically in governor's races - and downballot races because those are races I understand and I think I can help with. That's my focus. As I travel around the country there are some who are encouraging me and suggesting to me that I should think about that. I respect and appreciate their confidence in me but that's something I think I ought to take a look at later. Right now I've got two jobs to do and I am going to do those two jobs.

Is it something you will consider in the first half of 2007 and should we expect a decision by that point?

I don't know. I've not thought about this and I don't know what the timetable is. I am just suggesting that enough people have asked me to think about this that I owe it to them to do it. But I'm not going to think about it now because I've got work to do. I've got a lot of work to do. It's a big country.

How many seats are Democrats going to pick up in governors races this year?

You know I can't tell you that. I understand Mitt Romney is suggesting Republicans are going to lose six seats. That's playing the expectations game pretty well. I don't know, but I will say this: I think we have competitive opportunities obviously in Massachusetts and New York, and I think that there are great candidates in Ohio and Florida and Arkansas and the changing demographics of Nevada make that an interesting state. Clearly, wherever economies locally are challenged, if we happen to have a governor of that state we are going to work hard to make sure that people understand we have the state headed in the right direction to be successful so there are a couple of states we need to continue to focus on.

How important in electing a Democrat to succeed you in Iowa? How much time are you spending on that? Obviously Jim Nussle is running a strong campaign that and Republicans feel very good about their chances.

Really? Well he's raised a ton of money, but with as much name ID as he has and as much involvement as he has in the state he is currently tied with two of the six Democratic candidates in the polls. Tied. Boy. And the two Democrats that he's tied with aren't very well known in terms of acceptance in the sate. He's much better known than they are and folks begin to look at his record.

This is a man who came into Congress as a fiscal hawk who is now the architect of the largest federal deficit we've had in a long long time if perhaps in the history of the country. This is a fellow who just said it was OK to cut help for kids going to college and at the same time provides tax relief to people making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. I think this is going to be a very interesting race. But it's more than just the governor's race in Iowa. What happened over the course of the last few years in the state is that the Democrats have gone from being way behind Republicans in registration to being virtually even. Terrific progress. We've gone from a legislature that was predominantly and strongly Republican to a legislature that now in the Senate is split 50-50 and in the House is 51-49 with chances for us to make enough gains to take one or both chambers of the legislature. So we've become a very competitive Democratic state and traditionally that has not been the case.

What are you reading these days?

I just got finished reading "Restoring the American Dream" by Thomas Kochan who is an MIT professor. It's an interesting book about the pressures and struggles that primarily middle class families are having in the country. Graham Allisom's "Nuclear Terrorism" was an interesting book from a homeland security perspective. I am trying to wade my way through Robert Fisk's book, "The Great War For Civilisation"; it's all about Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East and it's a 1,000 pages. I've got Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book ["Team of Rivals"] and I am anxious to read it. And my son gave me Bruce Babbitt's recent book, "Cities in the Wilderness," that I am looking forward to reading.

Editor's Note: The above transcript has been edited slightly to improve its readability.

* The Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1972 requiring court approval for domestic surveillance. Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 to make it easier for the government to obtain warrants secretly.

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