During the week Tim Kaine was selected as the vice presidential candidate by Hillary Clinton, many liberals – some of whom had deluded themselves with the pipe dream that Elizabeth Warren (or, even more delusionally, Bernie Sanders himself) might be picked – lined up to attack Kaine as insufficiently progressive. They cited his positive comments regarding the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, a recent letter he co-signed urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to ease regulations on mid-sized banks and credit unions, and finally, his personal opposition to abortion.
This is the sort of dilemma with which veteran Missouri progressives are intimately familiar. We would love to see strong progressive battlers who win office in St. Louis or Kansas City be elected statewide, but unfortunately, the state’s conservative lean makes that difficult. And so, we usually settle for center-right Democrats like Jay Nixon or Chris Koster, and are occasionally fortunate to see someone like Claire McCaskill, Clint Zweifel or Jason Kander take relatively more progressive stances on some issues. We understand that we aren’t likely to get dyed-in-the-wool liberals – or, for that matter, African Americans – elected statewide in Missouri.
This has been the message that many in the Democratic establishment have telegraphed this week: sure, Kaine is no progressive firebrand like Elizabeth Warren, but he’s the safe pick.
The irony is that when you strip away the moderate veneer and genteel manners that have helped him win wide bipartisan acclaim, Tim Kaine may be the most progressive candidate on a national major party ticket since Mondale. Indeed, since his first statewide race in Virginia in 2001, pundits have often suggested that Kaine was not too moderate but rather too liberal to win.
Instead of taking the word of some activists still charged up by Sanders’ near-miss campaign – or assuming that, as a white Southern man, Kaine must not be progressive – or focusing on the way he looks in middle age, which one White progressive said was like a distant relative who sells insurance and talks about his work at family get-togethers – let’s take a look at his actual history.
Kaine, the son of a welder, worked his way into Harvard Law School (after a brief detour into journalism studies at the University of Missouri, where he found journalism students “too cynical”). Much like Barack Obama, Kaine opted for service after Harvard Law, instead of joining his friends on Wall Street or at lucrative jobs in elite law or consulting firms. He performed mission work in Honduras, teaching impoverished young people, learning Spanish, and deepening his commitment to serve others. Soon thereafter, he went to work as a civil rights lawyer, fighting against the death penalty and housing discrimination.
Back then, Virginia and Missouri were in the same category – generally conservative states with a few progressive outposts. (That obscures an important difference: The two states were like political ships passing in the night, Missouri reddening as Virginia became increasingly diverse and progressive.)
During that maiden race, Kaine’s centrist running mate (gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner) spent their first joint press conference distancing himself from Kaine, a liberal civil rights attorney who was almost immediately attacked for opposing the death penalty in a state that has executed more people than any other except Texas. Republican strategists were certain that Kaine’s opposition to capital punishment – combined with his pro bono work on behalf of the ACLU – would end his statewide career before it began. “That’s the whole campaign,” one confident Republican consultant assured a reporter.
Kaine surprised most observers and won that first LG race. This was a preview of how Kaine’s elections would go for the next 12 years: The supposedly omnipotent NRA would spend millions of dollars telling voters that he was going to take their guns, even as they backed pro-gun Democrats such as Warner, yet Kaine would always win. And, in office, he was unbowed, signing an executive order after the Virginia Tech massacre banning gun sales to people with mental illness and fighting to close the gun show loophole and make background checks more stringent.
Liberals have attacked Kaine on other social issues, particularly his longtime personal opposition to abortion. But Kaine’s personal views have had little impact on his public record: Indeed, as a policy matter, he has supported a woman’s reproductive freedom. In fact, as a U.S. senator he has earned a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. He has clearly stated that, despite his own personal objections to abortion, he doesn’t believe it is government’s role to police others’ personal choices. This stance is, in essence, the heart of the pro-choice position: that is, if you don’t like abortion, then don’t have one.
Kaine’s progressivism as governor wasn’t just limited to a few issues. He brought universal preschool to his state, made Virginia – one of the largest tobacco farming states in America – the first Southern state to ban smoking in public, and, true to the strong Catholic values that have guided his life, vetoed eight separate bills that would have expanded the death penalty.
Kaine: connected to Black folks
American readers may be wondering, though: As a white Southerner, is Kaine really going to support African-American advancement? The answer is pretty simple: Kaine has spent more of his life among Black folks than any national politician in a generation with the possible exception of President Obama.
Kaine and his family have been members of a mostly Black church for three decades – well before he entered politics – where he has been a longtime member of the choir. He practiced civil rights law on behalf of the city’s dispossessed, sent his children to the 85 percent Black Richmond public schools, and was elected mayor of the majority-black city. Given how many powerful African-American politicians choose private or suburban schools for their children and are present in the church pews only at election time, there are not many politicians of any color whose families have spent their lives in such proximity to the lived Black experience.
And yet, Kaine was elected governor and then senator of a Southern state. As the nation’s first governor to support then-candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, Kaine was a key part of Obama’s primary victory, and also a big part of helping Obama carry Virginia in 2008 and 2012.
He won over suspicious, conservative Virginians when pundits thought it was impossible, and – amazingly, in these polarized times – was found by pollsters to be better-liked by voters after he told them that they disagreed on some issues. And then he governed as a progressive in a moderate-to-conservative state – something Jay Nixon has never been able to master. This is the sort of political skill that Democrats need to keep the famously slippery Clintons in the same progressive place where the Sanders-Warren and Black Lives Matter movements have pushed them.