Tim Kaine and the Evolution of Pro-Choice Politics

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The Virginia Senator could run afoul of an evolution of pro-choice politics. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The Great Mentioner of the collective news media is beginning to dwell on Hillary Clinton’s options for a running mate. And a name we are all hearing more and more is that of Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. Indeed, Politico is now placing him at the top of Clinton’s list, even suggesting he “towers” above all others. So of course he’s going to get extra public scrutiny. 

When that happens, people are going to realize there’s more to Kaine than his Beltway persona of a “safe” centrist Democrat who was vetted by Obama eight years ago and is from a key swing state.  He’s fluent in Spanish, having spent a year as a Jesuit missionary in Honduras before he decamped to Harvard Law School. He was a career civil-rights lawyer specializing in housing discrimination before entering politics. He’s been mayor of a reasonably large city, Richmond, in addition to being lieutenant governor under Mark Warner and then Warner’s successor as governor. And as a former DNC chair, he knows all about the party’s factions and allies and how to deal with them. 

Kaine obviously doesn’t bring identity politics to the table like Julian Castro, or a tight affinity to the labor movement like Tom Perez, or a passionate national following like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. But he’s unobjectionable to every element of the party.

On second thought, is he? An article this week in The Hill calls abortion policy Kaine’s one big “weakness.” Like many observant Catholic Democrats over the years, Kaine’s mantra on reproductive rights is that while he’s “personally opposed” to abortion, he’s largely inclined to keep the law out of women’s reproductive decisions. Yes, he’s favored parental-notification laws, but has carefully insisted on ensuring young women in danger of parental pressure to carry a pregnancy to term will have a judicial workaround. Yes, he’s favored bans on so-called “partial-birth abortions,” but only with exceptions where the health of the mother is at risk, which separates him from the entire anti-abortion movement, which uniformly hates health exceptions. He has a 100 percent rating of his votes in the Senate from Planned Parenthood. His policy positions on abortion may not be ideal to reproductive-rights advocates, but they are acceptable, particularly if the top spot on the ticket is occupied by an old friend like Hillary Clinton.

But in recent years, there’s been a trend among pro-choice folk that’s less friendly to the old “personally opposed to but” pivot, or to any other attitude that condemns abortion morally while tolerating its legality. More and more feminists are insisting on recognition of abortion as a routine medical service like any other, if not an actual social or moral good. This evolution can be tracked in the language on abortion policy in Democratic Party platforms in recent years. In 2004, the platform included the 1992 Bill Clinton formulation pledging to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” In 2008, after a behind-the-scenes battle, the platform dropped “safe, legal, and rare,” but included language indicating reduction of abortions as a goal. In 2012, there was no longer any language referring to abortion as a bad thing that needed to go away as much as possible. 

Interestingly, Hillary Clinton was still using the “safe, legal, and rare” formulation as recently as 2014. But the “rare” language seems to have dropped out during the current election cycle.

And that brings us full circle to Tim Kaine. Does his personal moral assessment of abortion matter so long as he’s sound on abortion policy? And even if reproductive-rights advocates don’t approve of Kaine’s formulation, is he a representative of a whole lot of otherwise pro-choice voters who don’t or won’t approve of abortion “personally” no matter how logical that might be? Could Kaine’s stance actually become a strength if the ticket spans those adopting the traditional formula along with those embracing the rapidly emerging positive attitude toward abortion itself?

That’s not an easy question for Democrats to answer. It may be worth noting that Kaine has shown some exceptional skill in dealing with hot-button issues involving his religion in the past. During the 2005 gubernatorial election in Virginia, Kaine’s Republican opponent, Jerry [no relation!] Kilgore, made the Democrat’s faith-based opposition to the death penalty a central feature of his whole campaign. Kaine turned it around by arguing that the same faith that led him to oppose the death penalty would keep him from breaking his oath to faithfully enforce Virginia law, even if it involved executions. By most accounts, Kaine won that argument, and did so without abandoning or refusing to talk about his own convictions.  Perhaps he can come up with some similar wizardry on abortion policy. Or maybe he’ll just change his rhetoric like Hillary Clinton did and any intra-party divisions on abortion will finally go away. 

Tim Kaine & the Evolution of Pro-Choice Politics