Eight years ago, Barack Obama was impressed enough with Tim Kaine to give the young governor serious consideration for the vice-presidency. Perusing the media coverage at the time, I could not find a single example of progressive dismay at Kaine (though it’s quite possible I simply missed it). While most coverage focused on Kaine’s youth, which was seen as compounding Obama’s greatest liability, I did find some evidence that liberals saw Kaine as an especially enticing choice. “The Virginia governor has emerged as the ‘change’-oriented veep choice for Obama,” wrote the New Republic’s Eve Fairbanks (who proceeded to make the contrarian case for Kathleen Sebelius). Former Jesse Jackson campaign manager Ron Walters endorsed Kaine in an interview with left-wing "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman.
Kaine’s selection Friday was met with a very different reception than it would have been two Democratic presidential terms ago. The liberal mood has ranged from solemn acceptance to outright dismay. In These Times, a socialist newspaper, had published a dramatic column headlined, “Is Hillary Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine.” An unnamed progressive Democrat told Politico, “This portends Clinton is going to surround herself generally with cautious centrists who don’t like ruffling feathers with big corporations.” Samantha Bee captured the disappointment among many feminist liberals in particular:
The left does have reality-based reasons for its dismay. There are aspects of Kaine’s record and beliefs it has reason not to like. At the same time, the complaints about Kaine suffer from a certain myopia that seems to be symptomatic of the hothouse atmosphere that has developed on the left during the Obama era. Emphasis on doctrinal purity have blotted out broader assessments of personal fitness, the absence of ideological dissent overwhelming the presence of positive qualities. The prevailing definition of a perfect leader has become a perfect follower.
The left has focused on three main complaints against Kaine: First, he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Kaine claims to oppose the current version, which is also Clinton’s position, and which I likewise dismiss as completely disingenuous pandering.) Second, despite his sterling voting record from Planned Parenthood, Kaine is a Catholic who personally opposes abortion, a view that has influenced some of his decisions around the margins of the issue, such as approving the sale of a license plate saying “Choose Life.” Third, he has lobbied to free smaller banks from the requirement in the Dodd-Frank financial regulations that they report their liquidity daily.
How you feel about these particular issues is obviously related to your feelings about Kaine. Speaking personally, I’m on the fence about TPP and am pro-choice (though open to the sale of license plates urging women not to have abortions). To me, the most persuasive count in the indictment is the Dodd-Frank issue. The law requires all financial institutions to update their financial stability daily. Smaller institutions find this requirement burdensome, but as Max Ehrenfreund persuasively argues, letting them make reports on a less-frequent schedule would create a huge hole in the event of a crisis, which can arise quickly. The trade and financial-reform issues combine to create a broader impression that Kaine is too close to business, and too distant from labor, for liberal tastes.
Obviously, if you consider the Trans-Pacific Partnership an economic calamity, or deem anybody who doesn’t like abortion a moral monster, these issues will be serious, and even disqualifying, blots on Kaine’s record. I doubt many of the disappointed liberals actually believe these things. So why should his record on these issues loom so large? I don’t want elected officials to let interest groups pressure them into taking positions that are contrary to the public interest, and some of Kaine’s stances might be taken (again, depending on your point of view) to indicate that he is too transactional, and not enough of a conviction politician.
But there is nobody in public life who can escape such flaws. Contrast Kaine with Elizabeth Warren, who is the liberal beau ideal of an uncorrupted idealist. Warren has lobbied, at the behest of medical-device manufacturers, to eliminate the tax on medical devices in Obamacare — a position that I’ve seen no serious economist or policy wonk defend. She also opposes the “Cadillac tax,” the cap on the tax deduction for the most expensive employer-provided health insurance. This stance also flies utterly in the face of expert opinion (as Sarah Kliff explains). But it endears her to many unions, some of which have negotiated expensive health-insurance plans. Interestingly, Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also both called for a repeal of the Cadillac tax. The endlessly recirculating lists of ideological failings by both candidates almost never include this important capitulation, which would undermine one of Obamacare’s important achievements in cost containment.
One reason is that the left considers it perfectly fine for Democratic politicians to sell out the public interest, if the buyer is a union rather than a business. But this means many liberals, absorbing this debate about ideological purity, have come away with a distorted, falsely binary impression of their party’s choices — reduced to True Liberals versus Sellouts. The rising influence of this purifying instinct, rather than any failure of performance on Kaine’s part, is what accounts for his transformation from the prospective-liberal-idealist veep of 2008, to the establishmentarian-letdown veep of 2016.
Even more strange is the deflated political analysis that has surrounded Kaine. Various candidates’ names have been reduced to demographic shorthand for the constituencies they might help inspire: Warren might have energized feminists, a Tom Perez or Julián Castro would have activated Latinos, Gary Locke perhaps could have helped with Asian-Americans, and so on. Kaine, on the other hand, is merely “safe,” lacking any of these positive qualities. This analysis seems to go for the fallacy — usually characteristic of the right rather than the left — that only women and minorities have a racial or gender identity, and that white men are somehow neutral. What if Kaine actually adds a specific appeal to his demographic category: white men?
To be perfectly clear, from my own perspective, Kaine’s whiteness and maleness adds nothing to his appeal, while the alternative of continuing to break down the white-male stranglehold on the presidency has a lot of appeal. But if we are considering the selection in hardheaded political terms, the fact is, Donald Trump is appealing to millions of voters on the basis of demographics — specifically, he is exploiting the fear among whites and men that social change is leaving them behind. If Clinton had a ticket without a white man, many of these voters would see it as a symbol of this change. Kaine’s presence might help reassure them. If your concern is to reduce the calamity of a Trump presidency, neutralizing the main source of his popularity seems wise.
That said, reducing Kaine to his identity is to overlook his positive attributes. He is committed to racial reconciliation in a profound and personal way, that can be traced over the course of his adult life. He has worked as a civil-rights lawyer and a fair-housing attorney. He has moved into an integrated neighborhood, sent his kids to public schools (a meaningful act in the South), and joined a largely African-American church. His passion for, and success at, bringing whites and blacks together should count for a great deal in a political environment where the Republican agenda is increasingly premised on driving them apart.
Kaine has displayed a willingness to defend liberal ideals, even at severe political risk. His personal opposition to the death penalty, which polls very well, was considered a potentially fatal liability during his first run for the Senate. He has maintained an F rating from the National Rifle Association in a pro-gun state.
Kaine is impressive to people who have worked with him. An analysis of his emails as governor reveals him to be diligent and detail-oriented. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama urged Hillary Clinton to select him. That the last two Democrats to hold the job consider Kaine the best candidate for her ticket — and a highly likely successor — should be taken as an important testimonial on his behalf. People who work with Kaine see him, without exception as far as I know, as highly intelligent, principled, and well-informed. The main qualification of a vice-president by far is not the marginal effect they have lobbying for this or that issue, or for this or that swing state, but how they would perform in the duties of president in the historically likely event that they one day get the job. Clinton made a choice based on who she feels is best-qualified to serve as president.
Qualification for office, and the opposition’s complete lack thereof, also happen to be the main issues over which the election is being contested. Or have we forgotten that already?