WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says Democrats need to do a better job of connecting with rural voters on their economic concerns in order to carry critical Midwest states in November. Vilsack, in an appearance at The Washington Post on Tuesday, the morning after the first presidential debate, also conceded that Donald Trumps attack on federal regulation resonates with rural voters.

He said that Clinton has a “very extensive agenda” for helping rural areas, including through development of renewable energy, and needs to talk more about it. Infrastructure programs, including broadband expansion, as well as assistance for college and child care also appeal to rural residents, said Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa. “Rural voters are still up for grabs. I dont think you can assume they are monolithic,” he said.

Vilsack also said he believes there is still a chance that Congress could approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership during a lame duck session even though both Clinton and Trump oppose the trade pact. “The game is not over until it’s over,” Vilsack said. Obama “is persistent and patient. I think he is also convinced this is the right thing to do for the country.”

During Monday night’s debate, Trump accused Clinton of secretly supporting the trade deal. “You know that if you did win, you would approve that (the TPP), and that will be almost as bad as NAFTA,” Trump said. Clinton insisted that she opposed the TPP but didnt directly address the issue of whether she would fight its approval in the lame duck.

Vilsack told reporters after the Post event that he hadn’t discussed the TPP strategy with Clinton. It’s worth noting that he added that the decision on timing of a congressional vote wasn’t hers to make anyway.

“I work for President Obama and what I do know is that President Obama wants this trade agreement, and he’s going to do everything he possibly can to try to move forward. It’s Congress’ ultimate decision, it’s not Hillary Clinton’s, and it’s not really Barack Obama’s. … Whether the election outcome has an impact on it, I don’t know.”

As for Trump’s anti-regulation message, Vilsack said that Democrats need to better explain why rules are being imposed and to ensure that those affected get to provide input before the regulations are implemented. “One of the challenges for any regulation is to explain to folks what the problem is,” he said. “What are you trying to solve? I think, frankly, generally speaking, government needs to do a better job of explaining what the problem is and requesting input from folks before the solution is proposed.”

For the “waters of the United States” rule specifically, Vilsack said EPA and Army Corps of Engineers need to reach out to farmers individually to provide them information on whether their land is covered by the new definitions of what falls under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction.

During the Post event, Vilsack predictably panned Trump’s debate performance, saying it was clear that he failed to prepare adequately. “I think we saw the Donald Trump who believes he can rely on his gut. … It will be interesting to see if we see any adjustments after last night”

Vilsack said Trump has the world view of the developer that he is. “I think he sees the world as if it were a dilapidated commercial building. He looks at the building and says, ‘I can make that great again. I can hire people to fix it up and then rent it out.’ He sees America that way. That’s not the America that I see. … I see an America that’s incredibly creative, incredibly innovative, the strongest nation, the strongest economy on earth.”

Vilsack declined to comment on whether he expected to have a role in the Clinton administration if she wins. There have been rumors he might be Clinton’s chief of staff. “Well figure out what happens after Nov. 8, depending on what happens on Nov. 8,” he said.

Vilsack, who has held the job of Agriculture Secretary since Day 1 of the Obama presidency, described how he was close to stepping down from USDA when the president gave him the job early this year of leading the administration’s effort to fight the opioid crisis. “I have such a good group of people that work in USDA that most of the initiatives that we have are moving along and getting done. There are days and times. …  that I didn’t have a whole lot to do, and I’m not just that kind of guy. I have to have something to do,” he said.


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