Former Iowa Governor Vilsack on White House Run

In 2004, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was on Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) shortlist for vice president. Now Vilsack, who just completed two terms as governor of Iowa, is a Democratic candidate for president in 2008. Vilsack stands out from the majority of Democratic candidates for his proposal to cut funding for the war in Iraq.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The news media, ourselves included, have what some call an unhealthy obsession with the 2008 presidential race when the first primaries are almost a year off. In this early phase of the election cycle, well-known political quantities like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain use the advantage of name recognition to get a head start on fundraising.

Several other candidates are in the race though, hoping that their messages and their stories strike a chord with voters. We'll try to give you the chance to hear them all, take your questions. On Thursday, former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, and today Tom Vilsack.

He's a Democrat who just completed two terms as governor of Iowa. Last time around, Governor Vilsack was on Senator John Kerry's short list for vice president. Like the other Democrat candidates, he opposes President Bush's plan to increase combat troops in Iraq and he wants Congress to cut off funding for the war in Iraq.

Later in the program, the victims of last week's storms in Florida include a flock of endangered whopping cranes. Plus, if it's cold where you are today, just be glad you're not in Oswego, New York. But first, Tom Vilsack and the race for 2008.

If you have questions about his life, his bid for the presidency or his views on Iraq, health care, energy policy or other matters, give us a call: 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And Governor Vilsack joins us now from a studio at member station WDUQ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And Governor Vilsack, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. TOM VILSACK (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Neal, it's great to be on. Thanks very much for the opportunity.

CONAN: The media has scrutinized the finer details of Hillary Clinton's singing voice and Barack Obama's six-pack stomachs. In that kind of news environment, how are you hoping to get your message out?

Mr. VILSACK: Neal, we're going through the "American Idol" stage of this primary, and I think at some point in time folks are going to begin focusing on the fact that this is a very serious decision we're about to make as a nation.

The country has some very, very important challenges that will require significant courage to create change - significant, bold change. And as they do, I think they are not going to look for rock stars. I think they're going to look for rock solid. And at that point, I want to be in a position to be able to talk about a substantive change in the direction of foreign policy and national security, as well as domestic policy.

CONAN: Well, on the face of it, it doesn't seem too unlikely that a governor be elected president. After all, the last two two-term presidents, governors of Arkansas and Texas respectively.

Mr. VILSACK: Well, I think that the nation has an affinity for governors. We actually do the work of what a president is supposed to do, making judgments, governing, balancing budgets, making tough decisions. I happen to be someone who's from outside the Beltway, and that's also something that I think people around the country are looking for.

They obviously don't believe that it's going to be possible for somebody on the inside to basically solve the problems that this nation faces, and I'm looking forward to a very spirited debate, beginning with a discussion of Iraq.

There's obviously a significant difference between my position and the position of everybody else in this race. I honestly think that Congress now has a constitutional and moral responsibility to end this madness. I think it has the capacity to do that. The question is whether or not it's got the courage and the will to do it.

CONAN: And the votes to do it. It couldn't get the votes yesterday to even get a debate on Iraq.

Mr. VILSACK: Well that's a sad state of affairs because the reality is if the status quo continues or if President Bush's plan to escalate is in fact implemented, what I can tell you is two things. One, it's not going to work.

We've had two prior surges, one in '05 and one in '06. It did not work. It will not work. It is a military solution trying to seek to solve a political situation. And two, and most importantly of all, we're going to continue to lose young men and women. Approximately 1,000 young men and women die a year in Iraq. About 5,000 get injured, and countless thousands come home much different from when they left.

Our troops have done a great job in terms of the mission that they were asked to do, which was to get rid of Saddam Hussein and create an opportunity for the Iraqis to create a nation of their own making. The reality is, though, that we cannot compel them, we cannot force them, we cannot incent them to get that job done. Only they may make that decision.

We are obviously in the middle of a civil war. The intelligence estimate has verified that, and our troops should not be in the middle of that civil war.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, our number again: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Our guest again is former governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. And let's get Stephen(ph) on the line. Stephen's calling us from Auburn in California.

STEPHEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

STEPHEN: Hi. I'm just curious, Mr. Vilsack, if you were president right now, would you be in favor of an immediate troop withdrawal or would you set some timetable months from now?

Mr. VILSACK: Stephen, I think it's important for us to take steps right now to take troops out of harm's way as quickly and as soon as possible. I recognize that it obviously will take some time to actually physically move people, but the reality is we can take steps right now to begin the process of taking our troops out of the middle of this civil war.

It is a political situation, it is a political problem that only the Iraqis can solve, and they must make the decision to solve it. No amount of military assistance or presence is going to solve this problem, and I think to a certain extent we exacerbate the problem by our continued presence and escalation there.

So if I were president today, I would be working with military advisers to get troops out of harm's way immediately.

CONAN: Out of harm's way, what does that mean specifically, Governor Vilsack?

Mr. VILSACK: Specifically, it means in those areas where our troops are greatest at risk today, which is Baghdad and the central part of the country, the Anbar province as well as the southern part of the country. Clearly get them out of the middle of what's taking place, which is a very complicated civil war that is not just Sunni and Shia, but even within the Shia population, disagreements among various militia groups.

This is not something that additional troops or a continuation of the status quo of American presence is going to solve. The Iraqis must be compelled and forced ultimately after four years of our efforts to give them this opportunity. They must be compelled to take advantage of it.

CONAN: And when you appeared - I'm just following up, if you don't mind, Stephen - when you appeared on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and Robert Siegel was talking to you, you said if there was a civil war, if it got worse in Iraq at that point, you might be in favor of sending U.S. forces back in; but it also might attract international support, the same kind of thing that happened, for example, in the former Yugoslavia years ago.

But presumably, these troops that you would keep out of harm's way in Iraq, in the northern part of the country, in Kurdistan, they would be there to respond to a buildup of al-Qaida forces, for example?

Mr. VILSACK: Well, some of the troops could be stationed in the northern part of the country for a period of time, but we must specifically state that it's not our intent to have a permanent presence in Iraq. The failure of the Bush administration to specifically state that has I think made a difficult situation even more difficult, because it has emboldened individuals who are against us in this area to suggest that we're there for the oil.

And so it's important and necessary for us to send the right set of signals. I would have them in the northern part of the country for a temporary period of time. My comment on the earlier show had to do with if there was a broader-scale expansion of sectarian violence to include multiple countries. At that point, the international community might be interested in interceding, and the United States would obviously have to be part of that.

CONAN: And if there were a buildup of al-Qaida forces, as there was in Afghanistan before September 11th.

Mr. VILSACK: Well, the reality is that's one of the problems with the whole process. We had the right to be in Afghanistan. The international community was supportive of our role in Afghanistan. We had a specific mission that was tied to the events of 9/11 directly. You didn't have to twist logic to get there. We, in essence, moved our troops out of Afghanistan, abandoned that effort to go into Iraq.

So we've made two mistakes, one not finishing the job in Afghanistan. We're now seeing the Taliban coming back into the southern part of Afghanistan. It's going to create additional difficulties as a spring offensive is launched in a couple of months.

It is an unfortunate set of circumstances and poor judgment by the Bush administration that needs to be addressed.

CONAN: Stephen?

STEPHEN: Yes.

CONAN: OK. I didn't mean to leave you there hanging for quite so long, but go ahead, if you want.

STEPHEN: That's OK, I just wanted to tell Mr. Vilsack I totally agree and appreciate your position and thanks for your time.

CONAN: All right, Steven. Thanks very much for the call.

STEPHEN: All right.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to - this is Jay(ph). Jay's with us from Michigan.

JAY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

JAY: I wanted to ask the governor about ethanol. Because of Iowa's early position in the primaries, politicians have been forced to endorse corn as the best - as a primary source of ethanol for alternative fuel. There's been a lot of discussion in the press every time the primary rolls around about the fact that this is essentially a poor position to take because corn has a very low, very poor energy conversion ratio. You just don't get anything significant out of corn compared with the energy you have to put in to grow it and harvest it. I wonder if the governor has any comments on corn as a source of ethanol and whether he would move to support much better sources of alternative fuel which are easier to grow, take less nitrates and have a much higher energy conversion.

CONAN: And I'll just preface my answer by saying of course Iowa has caucuses and not primaries, but go ahead Governor Vilsack.

Mr. VILSACK: Neal, thanks for that clarification. I will say first and foremost that corn was a great way to start the conversation about renewable fuel, but it is no way to end it. It is clear that we're not going to be able to use corn as the principal source of creating ethanol in the future for the reasons that the caller mentioned. She also could have mentioned that it uses a lot more water, and there's some serious concerns about the water tables, particularly in the Midwest. And also for the reason that we don't want to create a dynamic in which food and fuel and fiber and feed are competing with one another.

There are ways in which we can create ethanol with biomass and other substances, and we should be accelerating this effort in the United States as part of a comprehensive energy security plan. I will be laying out in very great detail next week an energy security plan for this country which will in part place greater emphasis on biomass, on switch grass and other materials that are far more efficient to produce ethanol. And I think we should also begin changing the way in which we subsidize renewable fuels in this country. Rather than providing the subsidy to the blender or the oil company, I believe that we ought to be providing it to the marketer of the products so that in turn could result in opportunities for consumers to purchase ethanol more inexpensively, which would in turn create a greater demand for the product.

JAY: So you're talking about an additional form of farm subsidy?

Mr. VILSACK: Not an additional form. Changing the - first of all, I'm not particularly supportive of the commodity subsidy program that we have today. I think what we should be doing is basically rewarding conservation. But the ethanol subsidy, which is roughly 51 cents a gallon, is currently going to the blender and the petroleum companies. I don't think it should go there. I think it should be based on petroleum marketers to lower the cost to the consumer.

CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to stop there, Jay. Take a short break. Appreciate the phone call. And Governor Vilsack will be with us after the break to take more of your calls. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan and this is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're still more than a year and a half away from the 2008 presidential election, but campaigns are underway. In the coming months we hope to give you a chance to speak with the candidates on both sides, from both parties and third-party candidates who are significant too, and hear a little about their plans, their policies and campaigns. Today Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, part of a growing field of candidates hoping to win the Democratic nomination.

If you have questions for Tim Vilsack about his life, his bid for the presidency, or his views on healthcare energy, Iraq or other matters, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. And why don't we go to Kale(ph). Kale's with us from Oskaloosa, Kansas, excuse me.

KALE (Caller): Oskaloosa, Kansas.

CONAN: There you go.

KALE: Hi, I'm interested in asking the governor what he would do if elected president on lifting the embargo in Cuba.

Mr. VILSACK: Kale, that's a great question and a pretty timely one in light of the transition of power from Fidel to his brother. I think it's important as a first step that we begin seeing whether or not there is an opportunity for stronger and better dialogue than has existed up to this point. And I get the sense from my conversations with those connected with the Cuban community in this country and experts who are looking at issues involving Cuba and other countries south of us that there is potentially an opportunity for us with Fidel's brother, Raul, to reach out and begin a dialogue that could lead to a softening of both countries' position towards each other. And if that's the case, I think we should explore it for sure.

If there is going to be a continuation of human rights violations, if there's going to be a continuation of restrictive behavior towards dissidence, then obviously we're going to have to take a little different approach. But I suspect that's not going to be the case.

CONAN: So it would not be automatic that you would say this has gone on long enough?

Mr. VILSACK: Well I think it is important for us to sense whether or not this transition creates an opportunity, Neal, for us to have a different dialogue and a different conversation. I believe it is for this reason: Fidel Castro basically was able to govern based on the strength of his personality and charisma and his connection - direct connection to what took place many, many years ago in Cuba. I'm not sure his brother has that same charisma, that same connection. So he's going to have to create more opportunity in Cuba, which means that I think he has to take a slightly different approach towards America. And if he does and is willing to do so, then I think America should be in a position to reciprocate.

CONAN: Kale, thanks very much.

KALE: Yeah, thanks.

CONAN: So long. Let's go to Matthew(ph). Matthew's with us from Long Island in New York.

MATTHEW (Caller): Oh, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MATTHEW: I was wondering what former Governor Vilsack's opinion is on firearms and the Second Amendment. More specifically, would you, if elected president, try to push another assault weapon ban through Congress?

Mr. VILSACK: You know, Matthew, one of the interesting things about your question is the fact that we're beginning to see a slight up-tick in crime throughout many of the major cities in America. And in fact there is some indication that the Bush administration policies may have contributed to that in the sense that we have redirected our attention and resources from crime on the streets to Homeland Security.

I think it would be appropriate and healthy for us to have another debate and conversation about assault weapons. I would be reluctant to limit the right of people to access shotguns, the kinds of guns that are used in families across the country to hunt. I come from a hunting family. My sons and I are hunters. My father-in-law was a hunter, and there are my family traditions that are extended or that are created as a result of that experience, and I certainly wouldn't want to limit those opportunities.

MATTHEW: Well, only about two to three percent of all crimes committed with firearms are committed with assault weapons, and most of those are gotten through illegal means. I don't really see how banning semi-automatic weapons because they have a certain evil-looking feature on them - I don't think you should punish law-abiding citizens who just want to, you know, kill some paper targets then, you know, not punish criminals who are killing people and they're not using, you know, legally bought guns.

Mr. VILSACK: Well I think we should hold people who violate the law - people who do harm people, who kill people accountable. I think if you were to visit with police officers, sheriffs, law enforcement officials, they would express deep concern about the expansion of these weapons in cities and communities across the country. So I think there's a balance here. And the balance is making sure that people's rights to hunt, people's rights to protect their homes are not infringed. But at the same time, if there's an opportunity to make our streets a bit safer, then I think we ought to be exploring those opportunities. And certainly when we had the assault ban weapon in place and we had the COPS program adequately funded with enough police on the street, crime went down.

And I think it should be - it's appropriate for us to continue to take a look at ways in which we can make our communities safer.

CONAN: Matthew, thanks very much.

MATTHEW: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Chucky(ph) in Sagaponac, New York. Though Mr. Vilsack is not the frontrunner, I'll give him a chance over all the others running for president. I saw him on "The Daily Show" and I still don't know what he's going to do regarding much-ignored issues. What would he propose in the way of tax relief to those individuals that learn less than $100,000 per year? And what is he going to advocate for in the way of reform on the income tax system?

Mr. VILSACK: Well one of the issues with reference to the tax system is the fact that it is extraordinarily complex. And there are so many small tax credits, for example, that are extended to individuals and families. One way to provide benefits to middle income and low income families would be to consolidate many of these tax credits, to increase the tax credits for middle income and lower income families in the form of a family credit and in the form of an education credit to make it a little bit easier for people to afford significant costs that they incur for their children, albeit education in particular.

The cost of college education is becoming more and more difficult for many families to afford, and it is I think appropriate and necessary if we're going to have a competitive economy that we have individuals that are well educated and have access to college. So one of the things I would look at would be a restructuring of the tax code and a simplification of the tax code to essentially collapse all of those smaller credits into one large credit that could very well be refundable for a number of families throughout the country.

I will tell you that I am deeply concerned about another tax that often is not discussed, Neal, and I think it's appropriate to bring it up at this point.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. VILSACK: And that is the birth tax. And people want to say well what is the birth tax? Well that's what I call the deficit. The continuation of a government, particularly since we're spending upwards of $150 to $170 billion in Iraq, we continue to amass these large deficits which in essence operate as a birth tax on the next generation. And I think we have to be sensitive to the amount of debt that we are creating and what it will do to the next generation of Americans and their opportunities. I think it's no coincidence that 60 percent of Americans, according to recent survey, are not convinced that they're going to give an America that's in better shape than the one they got to their children. And I think it's a responsibility for us to do that.

CONAN: As you know, the president's budget that he just submitted to Congress seems to make his tax cuts permanent. Would you seek to repeal those and thereby be accused of raising taxes?

Mr. VILSACK: Well, the reality is that one of those taxes is the estate tax, and I think that it's pretty clear that a very, very small percentage of very, very wealthy Americans are required to pay that estate tax. And I think it's much better for us to focus on reducing the birth tax than it is to eliminate the estate tax.

CONAN: What opponents call the death tax, as opposed to your birth tax.

Mr. VILSACK: Well yeah, that's the point. You see, it's all in a name but the reality is people think that they have to pay the death tax - 99.9 percent of us do not, but the birth tax is indeed assessed against every youngster and every child born in America today, and it's $30,000 to $40,000 of debt that they basically inherit from us because we can't make the tough choices. It's going to take courage to create significant change. It's going to take somebody from the outside to come in and say, look, this can't continue. There are going to have to be some tough choices.

As a governor, I balanced budgets. We'd make those tough choices. We even made them in years when we had less revenue than the year before. But you make those tough choices because it's your responsibility to make sure that the country's in better shape than when you got it.

CONAN: Let's get Ross(ph) on the air. Ross is calling us from Cedar Rapids in Iowa.

ROSS (Caller): Governor Vilsack, I have a question regarding the minimum wage hike that's being proposed.

Mr. VILSACK: Yes.

ROSS: My question is: I'd like to know how helping the very low minimum wage, raising it to, say, approximately $7 is going to help those that personally I feel are in more need, which would be around the $9 to $11 an hour wage, which is bumping them out of the lower brackets, reducing the amount of governmental help that they have. And most of the minimum wage people that I see are of a younger generation, whether it be those still in high school. And I'd like to know how that's going to help the lower middle class, which are the ones I feel need the most help.

Mr. VILSACK: Ross, there's an interesting dynamic in terms of the minimum wage in our Congress in Washington. There are some who seek to attach tax relief to businesses as a pre-condition for their vote on the minimum wage, which is, I think, making the deficit more problematic than before.

To your question, I think the theory is that as you increase the minimum wage, it basically puts some upward pressure on all wage earners and essentially results in kicking up wage levels of those who are in the middle and lower income brackets. And I think that is the theory behind it.

The minimum wage has not been increased for a significant amount of time. Its purchasing power is substantially less than what it was, say, in 1980. And it's pretty clear that there are indeed in our state of Iowa approximately 100,000 individuals that could potentially benefit. And indeed our legislature, as you know, did in fact increase the minimum wage.

So in Iowa that has in fact been increased but other states have not. States like California have increased it even more significantly than what was proposed at the federal level. So you're going to see different states with different levels.

CONAN: Would you support what its proponents called the living wage?

Mr. VILSACK: Well, I think it's important and necessary if we're going to be focused on wages, rather than specifically focusing on living wage, which I think is an appropriate standard. But the reality is what you need is an economy that will pay decent wages and support families, which means that you have to create an economy with innovative and creative jobs.

And one way that you can do that, Neal, is to create an energy secure America. I think there is enormous opportunity here in the United States of America if we have a comprehensive, significant energy policy that focuses on conservation. And what that means, it means different standards for automobiles. It means different materials, it means different construction techniques, different manufacturing processes, renewable fuel and renewable energy. A whole host of new opportunities there.

We actually in Iowa added manufacturing jobs last year, as opposed to losing them as many states did. Because we embraced renewable fuel and renewable energy and it created new opportunities for workers in Iowa. And figuring out how to use traditional sources of power in ways that are cleaner and greener.

There's enormous opportunity to expand the economy and expand the middle class. So living wage is one thing. That's a standard. The difficulty is defining what precisely that means. That's why in the past we've looked at minimum wage and earned income tax credits as a way to provide support and help and assistance for those who are struggling.

I think what we ought to be focusing on in addition to all of that is growing an economy that expands the middle class, and I think we start with energy security.

CONAN: Ross, thanks very much for the call.

ROSS: I have an additional question…

CONAN: I'm afraid - I wanted to give some other people a chance and we only have another four and a half minutes with Governor Vilsack so.

ROSS: I understand that. Thank you.

CONAN: Ok. Thanks, Ross. We're talking with former Governor of Iowa and Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Vilsack. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is an e-mail from Michael in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. How concerned are you that the current flow of information out of the White House about the nature of Iran's involvement in Iraq could be setting the public up for a war, specifically one in which our country drops nuclear weapons on the deeply buried nuclear development sites they seem to be so concerned about?

Mr. VILSACK: Well, I think the Iranian situation is a very difficult and troublesome situation, which is a result in part of this administration's fixation initially with Iraq. They spent time, energy and resources focusing on Iraq, and the result is that they have failed to look at the areas of the world that have actually grown substantially more dangerous over the course of last six years.

Neal, the problem that we've had in the past, in my view, is that we have focused on the enemy, an identification of a person or a state as the enemy and are attempting to deal with security by focusing on the enemy.

I think what we should focusing on is eliminating risk, eliminating the weapons or tools that enemies could use to do significant and great harm to this country. By far the greatest challenge we face and the greatest threat we face is one from nuclear terrorism. And that's why it's important and essential that we prevent an expansion of that kind of power in Iran and why we should try to contain what's happened in North Korea.

How do you do that? Well, I think it's important and necessary for the United States to exercise greater emphasis on diplomacy and direct contact with the Iranians and North Koreans. I think our failure to engage them in aggressive diplomacy has made a very dangerous situation much more dangerous.

That is not to say that you give away the ranch, but it does say that you begin the process of trying to figure out strategies that will isolate those folks and create situations and circumstances in which they are compelled to come to the table.

One way we can do that in the United States…

CONAN: Excuse me - compelled to come to the table?

Mr. VILSACK: Absolutely, and here's how: If in fact we can reduce the value of oil in this world, if in fact the United States of America becomes an energy secure nation and less reliant on foreign oil, we will help drive the price of oil down. When that happens, the Iranians, the Russians and others who currently are awash in cash won't be awash in cash. And they will need the international community more than they do today.

And it makes it more difficult for them to basically ignore the international community, ignore sanctions, ignore involvement with the international community, ignore what's happening with their banking system.

So it's important and necessary for us to take a look at all of the tools that are available to us. I do think it's important and necessary as part of the diplomatic effort not to take any option off the table. You clearly have to have options. But the Iranians know and the world knows that we don't really have a military option because of our current involvement in Iraq.

CONAN: And we just have about a minute or so left with you, and I did want to ask you a question about practical politics. How easy are you finding it raising money for your campaign? And, well, at least the media projects it that Barack Obama and Senator Clinton are sucking all the energy and all of the money out of the race already.

Mr. VILSACK: Well, you know, the media basically should not be narrowing the field at this point. The reality is that people in this country are ultimately making the decisions. And it starts obviously in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and these are four states that are taking their responsibility very seriously.

We raise money everyday. The more people we meet, the more people we talk to, the more people we outline our vision for an America that's engaged internationally, an America that is energy secure, an America that tackles healthcare by lowering healthcare costs in addition to expanding access to healthcare, an America that has an education system that creates innovative and creative thinkers instead of standardized test takers, an America that basically focuses on trying to solve the problems of this country by encouraging Americans to have the courage to create change.

As people hear that message, we are being financed adequately.

CONAN: Governor Vilsack, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it and best of luck to you on the campaign trail.

Mr. VILSACK: Thank you.

CONAN: Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa. When we come back from a short break, a tragic ending to a very long journey for a group of endangered birds.

This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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