Today’s major political story was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s decision to pull the plug on his presidential campaign. He made it clear money was the sole reason. Contra some snarky blog posts suggesting that blogger reaction to Vilsack’s wonky if politically dangerous reference to the benefit structure for Social Security earlier this week somehow instantly did him in, it’s clear his precarious financial position was the real problem.Vilsack had a complex if not irrational political strategy all along. Step one was to utilize his popularity and political base in Iowa, whose Caucuses are showing every indication of being even more important in 2008 than in the past, to separate himself from other “lower-tier” candidates. Step two was to employ an upset win in Iowa over the big boys and girls to elevate himself to the top tier, over the barely breathing political body of anyone croaked by a loss or poor showing Iowa (most likely the perceived current Iowa front-runner, John Edwards). And step three was to become a national alternative to whoever became the post-Iowa, post-New Hampshire front-runner.But the most complicated part of the Vilsack strategy was overcoming the legendary reluctance of Iowans to give up their king- or queen-making national status in the nominating process and support a favorite son. That meant showing the flag nationally to eliminate his “mere-favorite-son” status, and also building the best field organization in Iowa of any candidate. Both measures required a lot of money, and more money than his campaign could raise, particularly after Barack Obama jumped into the race and attracted most of the tactical, good-bet funds that hadn’t already been hoovered up by HRC and others.The sad reality is that without vast personal wealth or access to powerful “bundlers” of campaign contributions, it’s pretty much impossible to run a viable presidential campaign, particularly if you are not well-known or regarded as “top-tier.” Raising tens of millions of dollars overnight at $2300 a pop (the legal limit for individual contributions) without big-time “bundlers” or a pre-established national fundraising base is pretty much impossible. Vilsack gave it a good try, beginning his official campaign before anyone else, and trying to distinguish himself from the front-runners with dramatic positions on Iraq and on energy policy. But it wasn’t enough, and he was wise to fold his tent and maintain his influence over the presidential campaign in Iowa.Who knows: Vilsack’s timing in getting out of the race may have been partially motivated by both the human and political considerations involved in letting his staff–including his small but much-praised policy staff–get on board with other campaigns. Particularly with Vilsack out, Iowa Democratic political experience, and Iowa Caucus experience, is worth its weight in gold to those campaigns who for offensive or defensive reasons need to do well in that state. And on down the road, Vilsack’s own support–determined, I strongly suspect from my own dealings with him in the past at the DLC, by honorably wonky policy considerations as much as by politics–might mean everything to a candidate whose tongue is lolling out for victory in Iowa.So while we bid farewell to Tom Vilsack’s candidacy for president, we almost certainly haven’t seen the end of his impact on the 2008 presidential campaign.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.