Why the Left Can (Probably) Live With Tim Kaine

He’s no Elizabeth Warren. But against Donald Trump, he doesn’t have to be.

Sen. Tim Kaine
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
June 16, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

There’s little doubt that Sen. Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia is qual­i­fied to be vice pres­id­ent, and there­fore pres­id­ent if it came to that.

But wheth­er the former gov­ernor, lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, may­or, and na­tion­al party chair is qual­i­fied to win the sin­cere em­brace of grass­roots pro­gress­ives who flocked to Bernie Sanders’s cam­paign is a trick­i­er ques­tion.

As Sanders’s in­sur­gent bid enters its en­dgame, the ques­tion of who Hil­lary Clin­ton will tap for her tick­et looms lar­ger.

Kaine is a short-list main­stay. The 58-year-old has down­played the pos­sib­il­ity of be­ing Clin­ton’s choice while stop­ping well short of tak­ing him­self out of the run­ning.

The topline case for Kaine in­cludes his re­cord of vic­tor­ies in a cru­cial swing state (he’s nev­er lost an elec­tion), his flu­ency in Span­ish, and for­eign policy heft from ser­vice on the For­eign Re­la­tions and Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tees. He has no ob­vi­ous per­son­al or eth­ic­al bag­gage, and would score well in the “first, do no harm” cat­egory of VP at­trib­utes.

And of course it helps that his state’s cur­rent gov­ernor is a Demo­crat, so pick­ing Kaine doesn’t pave the way for an ap­poin­ted GOP re­place­ment in the Sen­ate.

But Clin­ton is also be­lieved to be weigh­ing pro­gress­ive heavy­weights in­clud­ing Sens. Eliza­beth War­ren and Sher­rod Brown, so the pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee must con­sider wheth­er Kaine’s re­l­at­ively cent­rist im­age and some not­able breaks with the Left would fur­ther dampen the base’s ex­cite­ment over her cam­paign.

He’s cer­tainly no War­ren, by tem­pera­ment or his po­s­i­tion in Demo­crat­ic polit­ics. And he has not been at the cen­ter of battles over Wall Street and sev­er­al oth­er is­sues that have most an­im­ated the Sanders move­ment.

Low­ell Feld, a long­time ob­serv­er of Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic polit­ics and Kaine back­er, notes that Kaine ran for gov­ernor in 2005 as a “busi­ness friendly” can­did­ate.

“He hasn’t been a Bernie Sanders. He hasn’t been an Eliza­beth War­ren. But I don’t know that he could have got­ten elec­ted in Vir­gin­ia if he had,” said Feld, the founder and ed­it­or of the polit­ic­al blog Blue Vir­gin­ia.

“He is not an ideo­logue. He is cer­tainly not a left-wing ideo­logue in any way. If that’s what you want … that’s not Kaine,” he said, al­though he noted that Kaine has non­ethe­less been “pretty pro­gress­ive.”

Kaine doesn’t see eye-to-eye with pro­gress­ives or labor on free trade, a huge is­sue for Sanders’s back­ers bat­tling Clin­ton, who re­versed her earli­er sup­port for the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship and op­posed the deal dur­ing the cam­paign.

Kaine has voted for “fast track” trade au­thor­ity that would help Pres­id­ent Obama win pas­sage of TPP and clear the way for fu­ture trade deals—a big no-no for labor at a time when the AFL-CIO has just en­dorsed Clin­ton.

In an­oth­er fis­sure with the Sanders wing, he backed open­ing Vir­gin­ia’s coast to drilling. But Obama doesn’t back At­lantic drilling any­more, and Clin­ton has flatly come out against it too.

And Kaine doesn’t break with his party’s pro­gress­ive wing as much as his cent­rist im­age might sug­gest.

He gets very high marks from groups such as the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, and Planned Par­ent­hood—a de­vout Cath­ol­ic, he per­son­ally op­poses abor­tion, but sup­ports Roe v. Wade—and dis­mal rank­ings from groups that op­pose gun con­trol. He has also pushed for stronger vot­ing rights, which has be­come a prom­in­ent top­ic in 2016.

“It’s not fair to Tim to say he’s right of cen­ter. He’s pretty lib­er­al on a lot of things,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bri­an Schatz of Hawaii, a Clin­ton sup­port­er whose state went heav­ily for Sanders in its March caucus.

“He’s rep­res­ent­ing the state of Vir­gin­ia. That’s not the same as rep­res­ent­ing the state of Hawaii, but it’s im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that he has been with us on a lot of pro­gress­ive is­sues,” Schatz said.

In the Sen­ate, Kaine has made a point of work­ing with Re­pub­lic­ans—act­ively seek­ing out GOP part­ners on le­gis­la­tion whenev­er pos­sible—and has fo­cused on some is­sues that cut across ideo­lo­gic­al lines, in­clud­ing an ag­gress­ive push to re­as­sert Con­gress’s role in de­term­in­ing when Amer­ic­an troops go in­to battle.

Kaine is hardly viewed as a pro­gress­ive lead­er at a time when the Left wants the Clin­ton cam­paign to em­brace the goals of the Sanders move­ment—even as Sanders him­self faces the end of his in­sur­gent cam­paign. A knock on Kaine, in short, is that he would not quick­en the pulses of very lib­er­al voters.

But he may not have to.

Becky Bond, a former seni­or ad­viser to the Sanders cam­paign, has some mis­giv­ings about Kaine, call­ing him a “con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat.”

But she has huge mis­giv­ings about Don­ald Trump, and the vet­er­an of pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­ing says the lat­ter is the more im­port­ant mo­tiv­a­tion.

“The pro­gress­ives be­hind Bernie and the neo­lib­er­als be­hind Sec. Clin­ton have very dif­fer­ent ideas about how Demo­crats should gov­ern. Pick­ing a pro­gress­ive run­ning mate won’t change that,” Bond wrote in an email. “That said, Bernie and Clin­ton sup­port­ers share a big pri­or­ity—crush­ing Trump in Novem­ber.

“So to the ex­tent that choos­ing a pro­gress­ive run­ning mate might help with base Demo­crat­ic turnout, I’d like to see that hap­pen. But even if she chooses to run with a fel­low con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat like Tim Kaine, I don’t see it chan­ging pro­gress­ives’ de­sire to deal Trump a hu­mi­li­at­ing de­feat this fall,” she said.

Some oth­er pro­gress­ives are walk­ing a fine line of not at­tack­ing Kaine, while non­ethe­less broadly ur­ging Clin­ton to run to the left.

Mo­ve­On.org de­clined a re­quest for com­ment on Kaine. In­stead the group offered some more gen­er­al ad­vice to Clin­ton.

“The No. 1 takeaway for Clin­ton, and Demo­crats, from Bernie Sanders’s cam­paign should be the power of a bold pro­gress­ive mes­sage and plat­form. Demo­crats up and down the bal­lot—in­clud­ing the vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee—would be well served to not only em­brace Sanders’s mes­sage but also to ag­gress­ively run on his pro­gress­ive policies,” said Ilya Shey­man, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Mo­ve­On.org Polit­ic­al Ac­tion, which is the group’s PAC arm.

In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee cofounder Adam Green de­clined to com­ment on Kaine spe­cific­ally.

But he said the VP choice is one of the most im­port­ant sig­nals to pro­gress­ives.

“The vice pres­id­en­tial pick and the plat­form are prox­ies for how Hil­lary Clin­ton will cam­paign in the gen­er­al elec­tion,” Green said. “If they are big, bold, pro­gress­ive, and in­spir­ing, that sends a lar­ger sig­nal to Sanders sup­port­ers and swing gen­er­al-elec­tion voters about the kind of cam­paign she is run­ning.”

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