Ever since Tom Vilsack dropped out of the presidential race, I have thought there was a big opening in Iowa for Bill Richardson, the only governor and the only candidate with extensive legislative, executive and diplomatic experience. What I didn't know was whether he would make a serious play for this state.
The last few weeks have settled that question. First Richardson went up on the air with some well-received tv spots. Then he started visiting the state more frequently, holding small events that gave voters an opportunity to see him up close. He's been moving up in the Iowa polls, reaching 10 percent in the latest Iowa poll commissioned by the Des Moines Register.
Over at Iowa Independent, Douglas Burns covered Richardson's recent trip to southwest Iowa. Part of his piece reminded me of something I find intriguing about Richardson's strategy:
In Red Oak and Denison, Richardson highlighted his international experience.
Diplomacy shouldn’t be viewed as a “reward” for good behavior, he said.
“Even bad guys need something,” Richardson said. “You can hold a carrot in one hand and a big stick in the other.”
Richardson said he has the resume and track record to stare down America’s enemies, to reach accords that prevent the nation from sending troops to combat except as a last resort.
“I stood toe-to-toe with the world’s bad guys, Saddam Hussein, North Korea, the Sudan, Fidel Castro, (Omar) al-Bashir (Sudan),” Richardson said in Denison. “President Clinton used to say, ‘We have problems in our foreign policy. There are bad dictators. Bad people like Richardson so we’ll send him there.’”
Playing up his diplomatic background is not surprising, but I find it interesting that Richardson is not afraid to highlight the fact that he has negotiated with dictators.
His first tv ad, the biographical one, included a still photo of himself with Saddam Hussein. His ad about Iraq, in which he stands in front of a wall, alludes to the tough diplomatic work that will begin once we get our troops out of Iraq. In his “job interview” ad, the interviewer mentions Richardson's experience negotiating with dictators.
The Republican Party has tried for decades to make Democrats look weak on national defense, to the point that some Democrats feel continually compelled to prove they are tough enough to support war, even pre-emptive war.
Conventional wisdom has called for Democrats to show that they would not hesitate to use the armed forces to defend America. John Kerry was mocked for stating the simple fact that fighting the “war on terror” requires law enforcement and not just military force.
Yet here is Bill Richardson, not afraid to say that it's often in our national interest to negotiate with dictators, not afraid to mention that he stood “toe to toe” with Saddam Hussein.
I like it. Time to treat the voters like grown-ups who can understand that our foreign policy needs to be about more than dropping bombs and talking about an “axis of evil.”
Richardson is too conservative for me when it comes to domestic policies, and I don't see enough substance behind some of his campaign promises (e.g. providing universal health care).
But I am impressed that he is making a case for diplomacy as a foreign policy tool. Too many Democrats (Joe Lieberman is the most egregious example) play into right-wing frames that imply negotiating makes us weak.
Richardson's next trip to Iowa will be in early June, when he will speak at the Democratic Party's June 2 Hall of Fame Dinner in Cedar Rapids. I usually try to make it to that event, but this year I can't. If you are able to attend, please put up a diary afterwards with your impressions of the candidates and the feeling in the crowd.