Tim Kaine Tries His Hardest to Lose

Jamelle Bouie

Tim Kaine speaks at a Democratic rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Barack Obama’s 2008 win in Virginia came as a surprise to many observers, but his continued durability is not hard to explain. After four years, he still wins the overwhelming majority of African Americans, a large majority of Latinos, and a solid plurality of white voters.

But Obama’s advantage has not carried over to Virginia Democrats. Despite his long tenure in Virginia politics—mayor of Richmond, lieutenant governor, and governor—Tim Kaine is performing at the level of a generic Democrat in the state. For most of the year he has been neck-and-neck with George Allen, the former governor turned former senator (Virginians tend to recycle their politicians) who lost his 2006 re-election race when he used an obscure racial slur to disparage a Democratic operative. That Kaine has been tied with an avowed neo-Confederate is, I’m sure, distressing for his campaign.

Indeed, it explains his decision to buck Democratic Party messaging and give a lifeline to Mitt Romney, who has been under fire for his dismissive remarks toward the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes. In yesterday’s Senate debate with Allen, Kaine floated a minimum income tax for all Americans, meant specifically for the 47 percent:

Kaine was responding to a question from moderator David Gregory about whether “everyone in Virginia should pay something in federal income tax” in light of Mitt Romney’s leaked complaints about the 47 percent who he considered “dependent” on government.

“I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone,” Kaine said. “But I do insist, many of the 47 percent that Gov. Romney was going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does.”

Kaine is a high-level politician, but this is a clear sign of his poor political instincts. Despite the cries from movement conservatives to punish “takers” and “parasites,” few politicians—and none in the Democratic Party—have proposed anything to raise taxes on the seniors, students, middle-class families and poor Americans who don’t pay federal income tax. That’s because the issue is a pure product of deductions and credits—like the Earned Income Tax Credit—that are designed to reduce the income tax burden for middle-income families, and incentivize work for lower-income Americans. Kaine was trying to attract higher-income Virginians who might be amenable to a more general alternative minimum tax, but in the process, he may have alienated a larger swath of the state with his call for higher taxes.

What makes this an even worse stumble is the fact that Kaine’s path to victory depends on the Obama coalition. If he can persuade Obama voters to pull the lever in his favor, he’ll find himself on the winning side of November 6th. Given the degree to which he still underperforms Obama, Kaine should be focused on building Democratic enthusiasm. Indeed, there’s still a little slack in the electorate—George Allen, who once displayed a noose in his Charlottesville law office, is winning 11 percent of African Americans in the state.

There’s a good chance Kaine will escape unscathed by this unforced mistake. If the latest polls are any indication, he has begun to catch up with President Obama—he holds a 4.4 point lead in the Real Clear Politics average, and has reached the 50 percent mark in polls from Fox News and the New York Times. But the race isn’t over, and moves like the one yesterday could keep Obama voters away from his candidacy.

And if Kaine is elected, despite his efforts to the contrary? Well, liberals can count on working with a senator who will pander to conservatives for the slightest political advantage.

Comments

"And if Kaine is elected, despite his efforts to the contrary? Well, liberals can count on working with a senator who will pander to conservatives for the slightest political advantage." - We're used to it. His name is Jim Webb.

I see nothing wrong with a minimum federal contribution tax as a piece of the overhaul of our tax system, but to imply 47% of American's are somehow victims because they pay ALL of the Federal taxes they are legally required to pay is nothing more than pandering. It is ironic though that 85% of American's don't believe they are part of the 47% because they have a job.

I also had a cringe-inducing response to Kaine’s remarks. This was an especially bitter reaction as I’d just given $100 to his campaign the day before the debate. But this is coming from someone who tends to be closer to the national party on most issues. In the context of Virginia, it remains to be seen if Kaine’s error is genuinely an error.

Part of the context is that Dems have won statewide office in recent years only by distancing themselves from the national party. Frequently you’ll hear reference to “Virginia Democrat” -- this is used to signal that the candidate is to the right of the national party on social and fiscal policy (e.g. don’t touch gun rights, sometimes this comes with a qualified stance on abortion rights during the third trimester, on fiscal policy it means a preference for balance budgets, it can also mean a less than full-throated support of labor organizing). Note this isn’t a first for Kaine this election cycle. Earlier this year he distanced himself from repeal of the top Bush tax cuts.

Politically the motivation is obvious: there are a lot of upper income swing voters in places like the Northern Virginia suburbs with incomes in the $250K range. There are fewer people in the $500K range. So he’s playing the policy that he thinks gets him the votes. Maybe he sincerely believes in the position, but I think this is more about political calculation than it is about some principled position.

As far as Allen’s performance in state polls goes, I’m not surprised he’s doing as well as he is. First, he’s an excellent retail politician -- he can glad-hand with the best of them. Second, he has moderated his tone this election cycle after largely disappearing from the scene since his electoral defeat six years. Even after Allen's meltdown, he still went on to lose the state by just about 10,000 votes, which speaks pretty clearly to the divisions that remain within the state.

Regarding Allen’s racial cross-over appeal, relative to say Romney, part of this is probably due to his commitment to outreach (as strange as this might sound). When he was Senator, Allen helped sponsor legislation that would have sent several hundred million dollars to historically black universities. The bill didn’t pass, but the show of support gained him some political support in 2006 in the form of an endorsement from a Democratic State Senator from Richmond, Benjamin Lambert III. Also, a guy like Doug Wilder, who retains influence in Richmond, is a real wild-card. Remember that in the Governor’s race in 2009 Wilder came out in support of a conservative Republican Bob McDonnell. Wilder has no special loyalty to Kaine either. He was critical of Kaine’s leadership at the DNC as well as Obama in 2010 (even after having endorsed Obama in 2008). Wilder also has some fairly socially conservative views. If Kaine starts breaking open a larger lead, Wilder might throw some support behind him. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if he remains neutral in the Senate race.

Allen is outperforming Romney largely on the basis of conservative support -- not Obama cross-over support. In a recent poll third party candidates were registering about 6 percent of the vote in the state. Probably about 2 percent of the difference is coming from disaffected conservatives who like Allen, but don’t trust Romney.

Hopefully, in the future a more liberal Dem can win statewide office by making an unapologetic pitch for Democratic values. But right now we are “Virginia Democrats” first, and Democrats second when it comes to statewide races. Kaine’s remarks should be understood in that context. Whether it’s smart strategy remains to be seen. I understand his instinct, even if I don’t fully agree with the sentiment behind the strategy.

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