It seems unimaginable today, but I remember a time when people used to say "Tom Vilsack" and "president" in the same sentence and no one clucked. This was 2001 or 2002; he was a moderate governor of a swing state, the first Democrat elected governor in Iowa in 30 years when he won back in 1998. He was a darling of the Democratic Leadership Council, which, like it or not, seemed then to be in a position of power in championing Democratic candidates. He was never destined for front-runner status, but his was the sort of name to which one responded by thinking whenever it was floated, "Huh. Bears watching."
Well, as Lou Reed said, those were different times. When Vilsack dropped out of the race last week, he was confirming the obvious -- not only in terms of money, his stated reason for leaving, but also in terms of what's happened in the last five years. Vilsack's profile was now jaggedly out of tune with the times. I don't think it's a coincidence that he threw in the towel only days after his ludicrous announcement that he'd consider indexing Social Security benefits to prices rather than wages, a change that would open the door to privatization. With that announcement, he was signaling an accommodationist posture on an issue that the Democrats won, and won big, in 2005. Who needs that?
I think he even took himself out of the veepstakes by adopting that position. At least, he deserves to be out. He fundamentally misread the temperature of the times. The right to represent you and me at the funeral of the premier of Turkmenistan shouldn't come cheap, and no one who does as badly as Vilsack did in prime time has earned that right.
On the GOP side, the misreader-in-chief is clearly Mitt Romney. Can someone remind me why we were taking him seriously? I guess some people still are -- just as the Democrats have their heavyweight troika, consisting of Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, so the GOP has its version, which evidently includes Romney along with Giuliani and McCain.
But the only things Romney has done while in the public eye confirm glaringly that he just doesn't belong there. His big Sunday-morning unveiling in early February, on This Week, was humiliating even to watch.
You know how when you're reading a book that's so bad you actually feel embarrassed for the writer? That's what Romney's appearance was like. George Stephanopoulos tore him to pieces, without even trying that hard. Romney emerged as a devout Republican who voted in Democratic primaries (for a reason -- to lend his vote to the weakest Democrat -- that was patent nonsense), an incorruptible conservative who supported state abortion laws, and a "lifetime" member of the National Rifle Association -- for the last few months!
This last one is technically accurate. One can join the NRA at any moment and check the box that says lifetime member; you or I could become one today and start calling ourselves that tomorrow. But its technical accuracy just shows what a metaphor for the emptiness of Romney's campaign his membership is.
The leaked Romney campaign document that The Boston Globe published Tuesday only confirmed matters. Here's a man who wants to become president by running against ... France! Gee -- maybe he'll issue an executive order dictating that our school cafeterias use "Freedom dressing" when they serve our children salad!
The memo got one thing right. His hair is too perfect, and it does make him look shallow. But from what we've seen of him so far, the hair makes the man.
Voters, or at least respondents to national polls, seem to be sensing this. The new Washington Post poll shows that in the last five weeks -- the time period during which the people have had a chance to see his stuff, that is -- he's dropped from 9 percent support to a leaden 4 percent. Nine was within spitting distance of respectability; 4 leaves him 11 points behind a man who isn't even running, Newt Gingrich!
What's interesting about these two candidacies? There was a time when both Vilsack and Romney, whatever their personal limitations, would have been more serious contenders. Vilsack's willingness to bend on Social Security would have been taken as a sign of his "seriousness," and Romney's transparent efforts to repackage himself as something he isn't would at least have been seen as smart politics. But both are (were, in Vilsack's case) stuck in the past, a past when liberalism was afraid and discredited, conservatism was triumphant, and Karl Rove was talking realignment.
That time is vestigial. It's not entirely over -- I suspect that right-wingers will still exert tremendous influence on the GOP nomination process, and they could go for Romney despite his conspicuous flaws (here's hoping). But the candidates who campaign like it's 2002 -- or 1992, for that matter -- will likely find that the voters think that the past is where they belong.
Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.
Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.