Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is not a rising star in Democratic Party politics. Nor is he a particularly charismatic presence on the stump (his 2008 presidential campaign flamed out so quickly it’s easy to forget it happened), an important ideological or factional leader, or the kind of guy who’s likely to serve as an effective attack dog during a presidential campaign.
Nonetheless, buzz that he may be selected as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee has grown over the past week — and it’s worth taking seriously.
Vilsack is vetted, he’s qualified, he doesn’t anger any key party factions, he covers the right geographical bases, and — which in some ways is most important of all — Clinton knows him pretty well and likes him.
Vilsack covers some useful bases
Vilsack is a very obscure figure nationally, but he’s extremely well-known in Iowa, where he served eight years as governor, and where farming is sufficiently integral to the state economy that the secretary of agriculture is a big deal.
If you look at the list of states that Barack Obama won narrowly in 2012, Iowa is arguably the one that Trump is best positioned to poach. No. 2 on the list, but larger and more important, is Pennsylvania, where, Vilsack, conveniently enough, was born and raised.
And while Vilsack, like basically everyone else in politics, is a reasonably prosperous lawyer, he has what passes for a "white working-class" affect and biography in the context of contemporary American politics — he’s on the older side, white, male, Catholic, his dad was an insurance salesman in Pittsburgh in the ’50s, and he represented a rural farming constituency as a mayor and state senator in Iowa.
It’s not entirely obvious that covering these demographic and geographic bases is more important than adding a Latino or a Spanish speaker to the ticket, but it’s certainly not obvious that it’s less important either.
Vilsack has the right résumé
Agriculture secretary is not exactly a power job in the Cabinet, but Vilsack served eight years as governor of a medium state, which makes him about as qualified for high office as anyone else under consideration. Clinton doesn’t need to do anything to add heft and experience to her own résumé, but she does need to be able to say with a straight face that her veep is ready to take over if the worst happens, and Vilsack easily clears that bar. He’s held executive and legislative office, and he’s worked with Congress in Washington. He even has some foreign policy experience through the Agriculture Department’s role in trade and humanitarian assistance.
Even better, the nature of his work — Midwestern state government followed by the Agriculture Department — means that he’s managed to gain experience while completely dodging the big fault lines inside the Democratic Party over its relationship to finance and high tech. A nominee who’s been close to these big blue state industries could anger the left wing of the party and fuel populist anti-Clinton sentiment. But a nominee like Elizabeth Warren, who’s battled these industries, could make it hard for Clinton to press the advantage created by her own weakness in these segments of the business community.
Of course, you don’t govern a state for eight years without developing ties to its local industries, so no doubt progressive activists will find plenty to complain about in Vilsack’s relationship to agribusiness. But that suite of issues simply isn’t salient for very many people or likely to provoke the kind of backlash that hurts.
Vilsack is also in something of an age sweet spot. There have been some reports that Clinton is reluctant to in effect designate her successor as Democratic nominee by picking a young VP. At 65, Vilsack is clearly young enough to serve if necessary right now but would probably be too old to be the Democrats’ nominee in 2024.
Clinton knows and likes Vilsack
If Vilsack gets the nod, the fact that Clinton knows and likes him will ultimately be the reason.
Hillary Clinton has been working professionally in politics since Tim Kaine was in high school, and over the course of a very long career she has gotten to know a lot of people.
And over the past generation, vice presidents have come to play an increasingly substantive role in presidential administrations, so it’s increasingly important for a president to pick someone she knows she can work with. Since there is no shortage of seasoned political and policy professionals who Clinton knows personally, why not pick one to play this important role in her administration?
Vilsack feels like a weird choice because despite sitting in Obama’s Cabinet, he’s been a largely invisible figure in the Obama era of politics. But even though Clinton is chronologically running to be Obama’s predecessor, in terms of her life experience she herself is a pre-Obama figure, and so is Vilsack.
As former governor of Iowa, he would have been a credible VP selection back in 2008 when Julián Castro was a city council member in San Antonio, and Elizabeth Warren was a law professor. Clinton’s relationship with Vilsack dates all the way back to a friendship she struck up with his brother-in-law while they worked together on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1972.* Vilsack credits her help with fundraising as decisive to the success of his long-shot 1998 gubernatorial campaign.
This isn’t really a consideration that matters to the Democratic Party more broadly, but it may well matter to Clinton — and since Vilsack clearly meets the basic bar of acceptability, it’s her choice to make if she wants it.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Vilsack was still in office as Governor of Iowa in 2008 and also misstated Tim Kaine's job during that year.