Why Tim Kaine Is the Progressives' Dream

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine appear for the frst time together on the stage in Miami, Florida, on July 23, 2016.

The vice presidency tends to be vastly overrated during the presidential campaign and then underrated once the administration takes office. So it has been since Hillary Clinton announced Friday that Virginia Senator Tim Kaine would be her running mate. Progressives rushed to tell reporters how disappointed they were that one of their preferred choices like Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown wasn't the one picked, expressing how deeply troubled they were about the rightward pull Kaine would supposedly have on Clinton's prospective presidency. 

But they shouldn't be worried; in fact, Kaine is likely to be a genuine boon to progressive goals. That might sound odd if you've been listening to some of the Bernie Sanders dead-enders (a group that, it should be noted, does not include Bernie Sanders himself) over the last couple of days. But hear me out.

To begin, here's what I wrote in a long piece for the Prospect print magazine a few months ago on the subject of the vice presidential choice:

So ideally, Clinton (or any other party nominee) would pick a running mate who 1) is ready to become president if the need arises; 2) knows the federal government well enough to navigate its complexity to accomplish difficult tasks; 3) has the political skills that are required both internally and externally, so as to act as an effective spokesperson for the administration; 4) is smart and thoughtful enough to give good advice; and 5) has a strong personal relationship with the president.

While we don't yet know what Clinton and Kaine's relationship will be like, there's little doubt that Kaine meets the first four criteria. And you'll notice what isn't on there: the idea that the running mate should help the candidate win. That's because running mates almost never have a significant effect on the election's outcome, and in the rare cases when they do, it's because they cost the nominee votes (see Palin, Sarah). In this year of two strong personalities at the top of the tickets, it's even less likely that the running mate will make much of a difference.

Which means that the important question with regard to Kaine is what kind of vice president he'd be. But it seems that most people think about the running mate in the same terms they used to think about their primary choice, including, "Does this person agree with me on every issue?" Even if that were your standard (which it shouldn't be), some on the left are making way too much of Kaine's few deviations from progressive orthodoxy.

For instance, Kaine is a devout Catholic who believes in the Church's teaching on abortion, but who takes the same position that many prominent Catholic Democrats like Mario Cuomo and Joe Biden have in the past: that he opposes abortion as a personal matter, but does not believe he has the right to impose that belief on others, so he supports abortion rights as a matter of public policy. Even though he has perfect 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL, some are still skeptical about his commitment to a woman's right to choose (Katha Pollitt makes the most persuasive case here). But is the vice president going to be setting policy on abortion in the Clinton administration? Of course not. In fact, there may be no priority progressives have to worry about less than that one if Hillary Clinton becomes president.

You can say something similar about the fact that Kaine signed a letter urging the administration not to impose the same kinds of capital requirements on region banks (like Capital One, headquartered in Virginia), as they do on the largest banks. You can take issue with it, but it's not as though Kaine is being nominated for Treasury secretary; we have no idea how much influence he'll have over banking policy, but it wouldn't be a surprise if it's approximately zero.

Those disagreements also shouldn't blind you to the fact that Kaine has an extremely progressive record overall. He was one of the first Virginia Democrats to turn his back on the way members of his party had traditionally campaigned in the state (bending over backwards to show conservative white voters that they were good ol' boys); instead, Kaine won races for lieutenant governor, governor, and senator by putting together earlier versions of the Obama coalition, based on African Americans, immigrant groups, and white liberals. He has an unquestioned lifelong commitment to civil rights, and he ran as an opponent of the death penalty and an advocate of gun control, which took no small measure of courage in the capital of the Confederacy. 

While Kaine may not have an explosive charisma, he's a deft campaigner with a friendly mien who exudes compassion and caring. I look forward to him telling Americans in a debate how his deep faith leads him to inclusive, progressive ideas, a stark contrast with Mike Pence, who always seems to be about to tell you how dancing leads to sinful thoughts. Kaine is also extremely serious about governing, which I suspect is a big part of what finally convinced Hillary Clinton to choose him.

To be clear, we don't yet know what kind of vision Clinton has for the vice presidency, or how adept Kaine will be at navigating the bureaucracy and working with Congress to help pass the bills the administration is pushing and see them implemented effectively. But he seems to have that combination of skill in the public aspect of the job and experience in the private aspect that can lead to a successful vice presidency. 

And helping Clinton govern effectively is the best way he can advance progressivism. Let's be clear about this: An extremely progressive vice president who doesn't accomplish much in the job will do far less for progressive goals than a highly effective vice president helping the president implement her agenda. Even if Clinton is too conservative for your taste, on the issues you care about what you should want more than anything is for her to succeed. Among other things, she wants to increase the minimum wage, achieve universal child care, enact new workplace protections, expand Social Security, entrench and improve the Affordable Care Act, make college more affordable, expand infrastructure spending, enact universal background checks for gun purchases, and build on the measures to combat climate change the Obama administration has undertaken. 

On any one of those issues (or all of them) you might take a position to the left of hers. But none of them will be easy to accomplish, and if you're a progressive, the worst thing would be for her to fail—then you get nothing, and the chance of a Republican becoming president in four years would be even higher. And while you might imagine that it would be better to have a liberal firebrand pulling Clinton to the left from the inside, in practice that would probably mean nothing more than a VP who ends up marginalized. A vice president without the president's trust and support is someone who winds up doing nothing but going to funerals. 

So when you hear progressive groups criticizing the choice of Tim Kaine, keep in mind: That's their job. They may praise a particular development or decision, but for the most part, they exist to complain about things in order to exert pressure in their preferred direction. No interest group on the left, right, or center issues press releases headlined, "Everything going fine, no need to be concerned." But even if they (or you) wanted someone else in the job, Tim Kaine could well turn out to be the best choice not just for Clinton, but for the entire left.

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