Debating the End of the Vilsack Era

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There’s a mini-debate going on over at the American Prospect blog TAPPED about the reasons Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack dropped out of the running for the Democratic nomination.

Ben Adler chimed in first with the conventional wisdom: Vilsack simply couldn’t find any loose dollars hanging around Democratic circles, because high-powered candidates with fully-formed fundraising machines have already taken them all. This is really two explanations in one. First, the campaigns are starting earlier and earlier with only independently wealthy and/or celebrity candidates able to generate enough early buzz to stay in the race. Second, Vilsack didn’t have the qualities needed to compete in a Democratic race in which the bar is set very, very, very high.

The blogosphere’s best Klein responded with characteristic astuteness:

…the roster of candidates who’ve already dropped out is instructive. Mark Warner and Evan Bayh, two deeply credible, DLC-type moderates, exited early into the race, and not for lack of funds. Rather, they realized this wasn’t a year that could support moderate technocrats. Democratic voters are looking for progressive vision and assertiveness, not small promises and managerial acumen. Vilsack, I’d bet, realized the same thing.

My only contribution here is this. It’s not that this year is bad for governors; politics are changing in fundamental ways that make the future bad for governors. Matt Yglesias wrote an article for the Prospect online (that was kind of the inspiration for the debate) in which he decried the inability of Bill Richardson, New Mexico Gov. and second-tier presidential candidate, to get any traction. In the end Matt reasoned that today’s political atmosphere only takes “famous” candidates seriously; if you aren’t a celebrity, you aren’t a contender. This is undoubtably true, and what no one has said yet is that this likely means the end of governor-presidents.

Everyone (including Richardson) says that Richardson’s strongest characteristic is that he’s a governor, and Americans love electing governors to the presidency. Not any more. If you’re governor of California, New York, or Virginia, you can get famous. Otherwise, it’ll be real tough. And if you can’t get famous, you can’t run. And besides, in an era of near constant campaigning, only senators have enough breaks in their work schedule to travel the country; governors have to actually, you know, run things.

The only thing that could resurrect governors’ chances nationwide is if the primary schedule is completely redrawn — which it likely will be — and states that were previously off the map become extremely important. California, for example, is moving it’s primary up to February 5, making the nation’s biggest state much more relevant and the man or woman who runs it a much bigger figure.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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