Presidential Contender Lights Up Over ‘Trick Question’

Things were going well enough for Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack during a rather ho-hum speech on energy policy in Boulder on Thursday evening until the end of the Q&A session.

After fielding an angry outburst by an audience member who supports nuclear energy, Vilsack went on the defensive when questioned how the recently announced Democratic presidential candidate squares his responsibilities as chair of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an unapologetic free trade group, with his earlier remarks about reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“Hey folks, that’s a trick question!” Vilsack exclaimed.Earlier in the evening, the governor was in full-presidential mode as the first speaker at the inaugural Energy and Environmental Security Initiative, a lecture series co-hosted by the University of Colorado Law School and Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and public policy organization.

He spoke about moral imperatives and three point plans to increase production and usage of renewable energy sources. Throughout the speech, he liberally sprinkled criticisms of India and China’s foreign policy and international trade goals which are integrated into their rapidly growing energy needs.

However, when questioned about his seemingly conflicting statements supporting both global free trade and stiff import tariffs on renewable energy sources, such as sugar cane-based ethanol from Brazil, Vilsack launched into an oddly defensive not-quite-so-presidential diatribe about labor and agriculture subsidies.

“We need to have a conversation about free trade and our social compact with workers,” he said as he tried to soften his original hardline statements about energy as a national security concern by pointing out our current trade with oil producing nations that are politically opposed to the U.S.

First, he blamed the Bush Administration for not enforcing trade agreements and its unwillingness to “get harsh with our banker” in China about its own energy and military trade with other nations (read: Iran and Venezuela) that undercut U.S. interests.

Vilsack then took off in a pre-programmed DLC pro-business direction – recommending a wholesale change in helping displaced workers by creating a wage insurance program to replace standard unemployment benefits.

As he described it, manufacturing workers typically experience 80 weeks of job loss which far exceeds most states’ unemployment insurance terms. Rather than the current safety net program, Vilsack proposed a cash subsidy to make up the difference between the previously earned wage and the new most likely lower wage over a period of time as workers transition from union-protected high wage factory jobs to those more often in the service sector without benefits. He also broadly suggested that future agriculture subsidies be tied to conservation benchmarks rather than crop production but stopped short of offering specifics.

That may sound all good and tough guy presidential but it still doesn’t address the nub of the problem as it was asked — the skid-greasing pro-corporate trade policies advocated by the DLC that encourage the exporting of well-paid U.S. manufacturing and high tech jobs to China and southeast Asia and those that pit local farm producers against one another, as was the case with both NAFTA and CAFTA.

It’s also tough to “get harsh with China” when American consumers demand cheap and plentiful products at everyday low prices at the local neighborhood Wal-Mart – the very place now hiring those displaced workers at below poverty level wages.

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