Tom Vilsack a 'safe' choice for VP

Jason Noble
Now Media Group

Tom Vilsack certainly has a resume befitting a vice president. The question is whether that's enough to get the nod in a political year like this one.

The U.S. secretary of agriculture and former Iowa governor is eminently qualified to run alongside presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a dozen Iowa Democrats and national political observers told The Des Moines Register this month.

But he may not meet the more visceral political demands of a personality-driven campaign.

'He'd be a great one to put on that list, but at the end of the day, it's a complicated choice that Hillary Clinton will have to make,' said Dick Gephardt, the two-time presidential candidate who was on Democratic nominee John Kerry's vice presidential shortlist in 2004.

As it stands, Vilsack's name can be found on some of the longer lists of potential running mates, although he doesn't appear to be a top-tier choice.

What would Vilsack bring to the ticket?

According to Gephardt, potential vice presidents face a three-part test: Are they ready to be president; do they have a strong relationship with the nominee; and do they add something to the ticket's electoral prospects?

There's little doubt that Vilsack meets the first test. As a two-term Iowa governor and the longest-serving member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, he's about as prepared for the Oval Office as anyone possibly could be.

'The bottom line is, I have absolutely no doubt that if anything terrible should happen when (Clinton's) president that he could step in and assume the roles and responsibilities of that office immediately,' said U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City.

Vilsack was previously vetted for Kerry for the vice presidency in 2004 (Vilsack and Gephardt both lost out to John Edwards), and he ran for president himself for 96 days in late 2006 and early 2007.

The Register examined Vilsack's vice presidential potential in 2014, getting incumbent Vice President Joe Biden on the record calling him 'one of the stars of the Cabinet' and saying 'he'd make a great vice president.'

What's in it for Clinton?

More than one source described Vilsack as the 'safe choice' for Clinton. He has an unimpeachable resume, he already has been vetted for the office and he's widely respected by Republicans and Democrats.

'It's hard to find people who don't like Tom Vilsack,' said Jake Ketzner, a Republican political strategist. 'Tom is what he is. You know exactly what you're getting, and there are no surprises.'

And just as importantly, he has a relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton dating back decades — meeting Gephardt's second test.

Vilsack's brother-in-law, Tom Bell, worked with Hillary Clinton on the staff of the congressional Watergate hearings in 1972, and as first lady Clinton helped raise money for Vilsack's first gubernatorial run, in 1998.

'He has a great relationship with the Clintons,' Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said. 'That's important to them in a VP selection, and is an important criteria.'

Vilsack alluded to that relationship in an op-ed he wrote last year endorsing Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy.

'Without her support I may not have won' that first race for governor, Vilsack wrote. 'Why did she do it? Loyalty.'

Why choose another?

While Vilsack may be a safe choice, he's not necessarily in step with the immediate political demands facing Clinton's candidacy, observers said.

'He doesn't have very high national visibility,' observed Saint Louis University School of Law Professor Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency. 'How would he do as a national candidate? Would he excite people? How would he do under the bright lights of the national stage? That's always a question for someone who hasn't done a lot of visible political work.'

The three names leaked last week as possible nominees, by contrast, have much wider public profiles and proven appeal among Democratic constituencies Clinton may need to fire up for November. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, is a progressive superstar; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro is perhaps the party's most prominent Latino; and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine represents the large swing state of Virginia.

One prominent voice, though, turns that argument on its head. Former Iowa U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said demographic and geographic considerations might make Vilsack, a white, middle-age, Midwestern advocate for rural America, the best choice for vice president.

'Who is Hillary weakest with?' Harkin asked in an interview this month. 'White men. Vilsack, you know, he's secretary of agriculture, he wears his cowboy boots, and he's originally from Pennsylvania. What's a state Hillary needs to carry? Pennsylvania.'

Would Vilsack say yes?

Why would Vilsack accept an offer to be vice president? The answer seems self-evident: It's the vice presidency.

'For someone interested in public policy and achieving things in the public interest, it's a great opportunity and one he should and, I think, would jump at,' Miller said. 'I don't see a lot of downsides.'

And besides, added Iowa political strategist Jeff Link, if Vilsack wants to remain in public service, there isn't really anywhere else to go.

'It's a continued opportunity to serve the country,' Link said. 'Almost any other role would be a lateral move in the government. He may want to move back to the private sector, but if he wishes to stay in government service, this makes sense.'

Why would he decline?

On the flip side, signing on to a presidential ticket would mean committing to another four or perhaps eight years in office as opposed to a potentially far more lucrative job in the private sector.

'The only drawback would be foreclosing the opportunity to step away from government service,' Link said.

Vilsack told the Register last month he intends to return to Des Moines once he leaves the Obama administration.

'We've had a house in Des Moines for a while and we have three grandchildren, so it's not rocket science to figure out we're going back to Des Moines,' he told reporters. 'I don't know what we are going to do or when we are going to go back, but that's home.'

How does he respond?

A Vilsack spokesman referred questions about the vice presidential selection process to the Clinton campaign, which declined to comment.