Empathy and Electability: Why the Vilsacks Endorsed Vice President Joe Biden
DES MOINES, Iowa – It was a beautiful and sunny Saturday morning in Des Moines. With the Farmers’ Market long over for the season, downtown was completely empty, excluding the line of people bundled in jackets and gloves snaking around the block just across the river. Organizers with clipboards and commit-to-caucus cards chatted with attendees throughout the lines, hoping to gain a new volunteer or supporter. A lone supporter passed out cookies and ice cream in the below-freezing temperatures. Shivering, I picked up a cookie, but I knew I would wait as long as needed in this line. This was the epitome of a must-see caucus stop: Dr. Jill and Joe Biden were in town for their “Des Moines Community Event,” and rumors about “special guests” floated throughout the line.
Earlier that morning, Christie and Tom Vilsack had announced their endorsement of VP Biden. Tom Vilsack is a legendary Iowan, well-known as a two-term Iowa governor and the Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama. His wife, Christie, was a teacher and Senior Adviser for USAID. The Vilsacks were highly sought-after endorsements; Gov. Vilsack admitted that they had advised many campaigns this cycle, from the lower-tier candidates to the frontrunners. The Vilsacks are popular and well-liked among Iowa Democrats, and their endorsement brings a great deal of credibility to the candidate they choose. After months of consideration, the Vilsacks announced at this event that they planned to support VP Biden in 2020.
In retrospect, the decision seems obvious. Gov. Vilsack had been friends with VP Biden for over 30 years, and the Vilsacks volunteered for VP Biden’s first presidential run in 1987. On every chair in today’s event was a one-pager entitled “The Biden Plan for Rural America.” The Vilsacks are incredibly passionate about the revitalization of rural communities, especially in regards to the support of farmers and increased economic opportunity. In October, Gov. Vilsack hosted a house party for VP Biden. However, the reasons that the Vilsacks chose to endorse VP Biden today were incredibly personal and newly important.
“I want to be able to get up every morning knowing I can trust the people living and working in the White House,” said First Lady Vilsack. She described a world in which she feared for the examples set for her grandchildren, for the future generation. Her husband later explained, “You can’t be a rookie at the business.” Whether you look at foreign affairs or domestic issues, we need a professional politician who understands the nuances of relationship-building and policies.
Gov. Vilsack also noted the importance of electability. “Joe Biden has offered a progressive and realistic vision to move the country forward,” he said. He believed that we needed to move in a new direction, but we must propose practical policies that will lift up rural communities and the middle class.
The most important factor in the Vilsacks’ decisions was not policy or pragmatism, but compassion. In 2017, their 6-year-old granddaughter passed away from a sudden illness. Heartbroken and grieving, the Vilsack family stepped out of the spotlight for a few months. When VP Biden reached out to the Vilsacks’ son, Jess, he genuinely was concerned for his wellbeing. “We are in a fraternity that we didn’t ask to be a part of,” said VP Biden, referencing his own loss of his son to brain cancer.
That moment stuck with the Vilsacks while they were making their decision. “I want a president who knows suffering,” said First Lady Vilsack. Gov. Vilsack later said, “He has the desire and need to comfort.” In a time of division and pain, we need a president who can heal. For the Vilsacks, that president is Joe Biden.