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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