Ag-nominee Vilsack speech at CU Law hints at ethanol, trade and labor stances

Way back in late 2006, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack ran for the Democratic nomination for president — for a whole three months until he gave it up in February 2007. While on the routine nationwide crisscross tour to make the case for his candidacy Vilsack, long known as a pragmatic centrist, launched into a rather fiery Q&A following a speech at the University of Colorado Law School.

Those remarks could serve as an interesting predictor of Vilsack’s approach to food, farming and energy as President-elect Barack Obama’s newly nominated U.S. agriculture secretary.

From our Nov. 18, 2006, story, Presidential contender lights up over ‘trick question’, reporting from CU Law’s inaugural Energy and Environmental Security Initiative lecture series:

On balancing his Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) “free trade” stance with foreign oil independence

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.

On renewable energy and trade policy

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 hard-line 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.

Unemployment assistance

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.

Vilsack has since tempered his enthusiasm for corn-based ethanol calling it a “transitional fuel,” according to a profile by The Iowa Independent.