Tough road for Vilsack

BY SHAWN GUDE | MAY 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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Christie Vilsack has guts.

The former first lady of Iowa, currently in the midst of a listening tour in the newly formed 4th Congressional District, is considering challenging the formidable Steve King, invidious statements and all. (She would have to win the Democratic primary, but that would essentially be a formality.)

It’s tempting to play down King’s political adroitness because of his unrelenting fusillade of inane comments, but it’s much easier to mock him than beat him.

Indeed, King’s penchant for dehumanizing undocumented immigrants and predilection forMcCarthyism haven’t hamstrung his electoral viability — last November, he secured a staggering 66 percent of the vote.

Vilsack would face additional challenges — she would run in a state that has never elected a woman to Congress and in a new district that still leans conservative.

What’s to blame for Iowa’s frustratingly intact proverbial glass ceiling? What’s at the malignant heart of the gender gap?

Political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, argue there are fewer women candidates in political office not because gender bias is pervasive in the voting booth but because of pre-campaign impediments born from gender norms. They found, for example, that otherwise qualified women are less likely to consider running for office and less likely to be recruited.

Vilsack, who moved to the 4th District last month, has bypassed the pre-campaign roadblocks. And if Lawless and Fox’s research is correct, those are the biggest impediments.

The numbers indicate Vilsack would run in a marginally more favorable — yet still less-than-congenial — district than previous King challengers. Citizens in the newly constituted 4th District voted for John McCain in the 2008 election 50-48 percent; voters in the now-defunct Fifth District backed McCain by a 55-44 margin.

To her credit, Vilsack would bring money, name recognition, and a (virtually nonexistent) political record that would be hard to pillory.

Another potential boon: King’s recent vote on Paul Ryan’s budget plan. As ISU political-science Professor Steffen Schmidt has astutely pointed out, King’s “yea” vote last month is a ready-made rhetorical cudgel.

The proposal, drafted by Wisconsin Congressman Ryan, would cut the deficit. But it would do so by turning Medicaid into a block-grant program and eventually voucherizing Medicare, while also cutting taxes on corporations and the rich and doing little to pare military spending.

There’s no doubt that Democrats will employ demagoguery and hyperbole when campaigning against the plan. But you don’t have to be a partisan cipher to recognize Ryan’s plan is abhorrent and inequitable. It would be politically astute — and substantively justifiable — for Vilsack to inveigh against both the proposal and King’s support for it.

And while it may be difficult to run on a platform of slashing defense spending in a conservative district, recent polling indicates that Americans are against both cutting Medicare and Medicaid spending and turning Medicare into a voucher program.

It’s hard to tell where Vilsack falls on the ideological spectrum or what she supports policy-wise. Is she, like her husband, a center-left moderate with a corporatist streak? Is she more of a populist, in the mold of William Jennings Bryan? Is she a Blue Dog Democrat, perhaps a more spry version of Leonard Boswell?

Ideological uncertainties aside, two things are clear: To a certain extent, her policy preferences will have to comport with those of her conservative district. And — despite such tempering — she’d still be far better than King.

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