First, let’s deal with the conventional wisdom. The shorthand on this is going to be “moderate Hillary Clinton chooses moderate Tim Kaine.”
Bernie-or-bust land is already howling, and the tension of the next few days will be “There goes Hillary, blowing off the left, taking them for granted, trying to please the establishment as she always does.”
And there will be some truth to that. Kaine is more liberal, and has been more bold on certain matters, than he is given credit for, and we’ll get to that. But yes, on one issue that has been crucial to the Bernie faction this year—banks—Kaine’s record falls quite short of what most Democrats want. He says he’s a firm supporter of Dodd-Frank (he was not in the Senate when it passed). But the current controversy involves two Senate letters that Kaine signed that had to do with banking.
The first, on which Kaine was one of 15 Democrats joining 54 Republicans, urged more flexible regulation on regional banks. The second, which was from only four Democratic senators (Kaine, fellow Virginian Mark Warner, Michigan’s Gary Peters, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania) and asked regulators to consider that regional banks should be treated differently from huge banks like Citibank. Capital One, the “what’s in your wallet?” outfit, is a regional bank based in Virginia.
Kaine’s press office put out a pretty fiery statement defending his position on this, and I don’t know enough about banking regulation to know how bad this is (and neither do you, you might do well to remember as you rail against him). But the timing—the letters went out this week—is, ah, awkward at best. So Kaine and Clinton are going to have to spend some time explaining this, and they should have to.
Ditto Kaine’s past support for TPP. I say “past” because Kaine is reportedly ready to renounce that support. It may fade as an issue anyway, because it looks like there’s going to be a vote in the lame-duck session of Congress after the election but before the new administration starts to work, so it will likely be resolved one way or the other before Clinton and Kaine (might) take office. But Democratic voters still deserve to hear Kaine’s thoughts on it.
The reactions of the party’s rank-and-file populists are going to depend to a considerable extent on what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have to say about Kaine’s elevation. It seems likely that after watching Donald Trump’s convention and his speech last night, Warren at least will have some perspective on this. Sanders is a bit more of a mystery.
The other issue on which Kaine’s elevation will cause a little agita is abortion rights. Kaine is a religious Catholic and is personally opposed to abortion, but he’s consistently taken the Mario Cuomo-Ted Kennedy line that he would support the law of the land. This will create chatter and angry tweets, but it shouldn’t cause any real problems: check out Kaine’s legislative ratings on the issue. He’s pretty much 100 percent from the abortion rights groups and 0 percent from the pro-life groups. And remember—he’s not going to be naming any judges. She is, and there isn’t much doubt about where she stands.
So those are the problem areas. But here are the positives, and they’re considerable.
First, there’s Kaine’s life story. He grew up in the Midwest and then went to Harvard Law, where he met his wife, Anne Holton of Richmond. He married Anne and moved to Richmond and started a law practice. Most of what he did? Housing discrimination cases. In 1998, he won a $100 million judgment against Nationwide Insurance in a major discrimination case (eventually settled for $16 million). That case put some money in his pocket, but housing discrimination isn’t the most enriching line of legal work. That he made that choice is to be admired.
Part of the reason he made it, no doubt, had to do with his wife, who was the daughter of Linwood Holton, the first integrationist governor of Virginia back in 1970, and a Republican. He integrated Richmond’s schools, and to show that they could walk the walk, Governor Holton and his wife sent Anne and her siblings to Richmond public schools that were 80 percent black. Kaine and Anne sent their three children to the same mostly black schools. Linwood is still alive, at 92; it’d be nice if he’s in salubrious enough condition to make it to a convention podium.
You probably know the part about how Kaine was a Catholic missionary in Honduras and learned fluent Spanish. That can all make a difference—I hope that starting tomorrow, Kaine goes to heavily Latino areas in Florida and other states and starts giving speeches denouncing Trump in Spanish. But more interesting to me is what it tells us about him. I sure wasn’t a missionary teaching English to poor people in Central America, and I doubt most of the lefties now outraged by his pick were either.
There’s much more to say. For a guy from gun-happy Virginia, he’s been pretty great on guns, flouting his F rating from the NRA and working with Republicans in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre to close the loophole that let that killer legally buy his guns. Today, at the presidential level, Virginia is a purple-shading-to-blue state. But when Kaine started his political career in the state, even though it was only a few years ago, Virginia was red. A Democrat had to pick his spots, and Kaine played a role in helping to change the state’s coloration. It took guts to stand up to the NRA in that state, and skill to win statewide office with their seal of the devil upon his forehead. He finished off George Allen—a huge name in the state.
He’s good on foreign policy—he led the effort in the Senate (unsuccessful, but he tried) to give Congress an oversight role on the ISIS war. And sure, he’s kind of boring. But Clinton is obviously comfortable with him. And that’s really important. Think about the contrast with Donald Trump. Trump made a wholly cynical and transactional choice. He has negative chemistry with Mike Pence. He undoubtedly holds Pence in some degree of contempt as an Indiana rube. Clinton chose someone she thought she’d be comfortable governing with. It’s a much more honorable way to go, and it’s emblematic of the way in which Clinton, for all her errors, has five times the character Trump has.
I have more thoughts than I can cram into one column. I think the fact that there’s no remote aura of scandal around him is important. I think he will say to apolitical swing voters: Well, maybe that Hillary isn’t out to reengineer America. She does need those voters, and America desperately needs them to settle on her. The alternative isn’t just radical conservatism. It’s something far worse, as we all just saw in Cleveland.
If Kaine reassures those voters, then he’s not just a solid choice. He’s a necessary one.