Too Much Smoke and Mirrors in Vilsack Campaign

Posted February 28, 2007 at 5:06pm

If businessmen acted the way some candidates, campaign managers and press secretaries do, many of them would wind up in jail. After all, lying to, or at least intentionally misleading, investors and regulators can get you in big trouble. [IMGCAP(1)]

But in politics, many of us have become so accustomed to being deceived by politicians, staff and campaigns that we don’t scream when it happens. We roll our eyes (or at least I do, as many people apparently have noticed), say that it’s part of the game and move on.

I’m not talking about obvious political criminal activity — the kind that landed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), one-time Providence, R.I., Republican-turned-Independent Mayor Buddy Cianci and the late Rep. William Tweed (D-N.Y.) in the slammer — or of all of those gray areas in politics, including questions that are a matter of opinion or interpretation, such as whether a candidate has a good chance of winning a particular election.

Instead, I’m talking about a couple of events that occurred over the past month. I use them only as an example, since I think it happens far too often in politics.

On Jan. 29, the presidential campaign of former two-term Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) sent out a news release titled “Political Outsider Takes in More than $1.1 million in Last 7 Weeks of 2006.” Fair enough. Campaigns often tout their fundraising, and that’s their business as long as the numbers are kosher. As far as I know, those in the late January release were.

The release then quoted one of Vilsack’s press people as saying, “Tom Vilsack proved in the last seven weeks of 2006 that he’ll have the money to campaign across America in 2007 and win the Democratic nomination in 2008.”

A bit later in the same release, the same press spokesman is quoted as saying, “Vilsack’s early fundraising success ensures that our campaign will be able to win Iowa and then the Democratic nomination.”

When I read this release I immediately wrote something about it on my Web site, panning it for being over the top and for being little more than a transparent attempt to deliver a message in the context of a news release about campaign fundraising.

But my view of that release changed late last week when Vilsack announced that he was ending his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, less than one month after the campaign was crowing about fundraising.

The reason for Vilsack’s exit? Money. Just money. Not family. Not some silly excuse. Just a refreshingly straight-on acknowledgement that he couldn’t raise the money to compete with the better-funded candidates for the nomination.

“We weren’t able to raise the resources,” Vilsack said in the video thank you on his Web site, adding, “Money became the dominant issue. We simply didn’t have enough of it.”

I have reason to believe that at least some people at the Vilsack campaign were aware that it was having significant financial problems as early as late January, about the time the Vilsack news release went out boasting of the candidate’s fundraising and guaranteeing that the campaign would have the money to compete in Iowa.

My guess (well, it’s more than a guess) is that the Jan. 29 release was part of a “Hail Mary” strategy — that included an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Feb. 15 and the release on Feb. 9 of the names of 1,100 “Iowans who have publicly agreed to caucus for Vilsack” — to get the former Iowa governor some attention and to help him boost his fundraising in an effort to stave off what was starting to look like the death throes of his campaign.

If that’s what happened, then I’d argue that the Vilsack campaign crossed the line by asserting that fundraising was going well and that the candidate had the resources for the long haul.

I’m certainly not suggesting that the campaign should have or was obligated to put out a release saying that it was in financial trouble, or that it couldn’t put out a very narrowly written release noting its fundraising totals and comparing them with candidate fundraising in the previous cycle.

But the Jan. 29 release went far beyond that. It was boastful about Vilsack’s fundraising success, and it asserted that the campaign would have the resources to compete in Iowa and beyond. Because of that, it was misleading.

I understand that campaigns are under incredible pressure to produce, whether in fundraising, positive political coverage or polling. And terminating a campaign is always painful. While Vilsack never was regarded as a top-tier contender for his party’s nomination, he was treated as a credible candidate and is seen as someone who might be in the vice presidential mix next year.

But trying to keep a campaign on life support for a miracle can lead to misjudgments. I suspect that’s what happened with Vilsack’s fundraising memo. Candidates and people who work for candidates ought to understand that they do themselves no favor by misleading journalists, contributors and, yes, even TV hosts about their prospects. Trust, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.