Why Tim Kaine is a Smart—and Progressive—Pick for Vice President

His life and career show Kaine to be an effective advocate for social change.

Thad WilliamsonJuly 26, 2016

Sen. Tim Kaine knows how to win—both politically and legislatively—as a liberal in a conservative-leaning environment. (joelrivlin/ Flickr)

Hillary Clin­ton made the right choice when she tapped Sen. Tim Kaine to be her run­ning mate. He’s spent his career fight­ing for social jus­tice — often win­ning against con­ser­v­a­tive odds in his home state of Vir­ginia. Here in Rich­mond, the sen­a­tor com­mands vir­tu­al­ly uni­ver­sal respect, not only as an eth­i­cal leader but as a savvy and thought­ful advo­cate for social change.

"The selection of Kaine will bolster Clinton’s chances of winning an election that the country can’t afford for her to lose."

Most of his crit­ics have shown vir­tu­al­ly no under­stand­ing of who Kaine is and what he has accom­plished in over two decades of pub­lic ser­vice. It’s time to take a clos­er look.

There are four ways to eval­u­ate a vice-pres­i­den­tial selection.

The first is the ide­o­log­i­cal lit­mus test. You posit a stan­dard left-right polit­i­cal spec­trum (and assume that all politi­cians can be neat­ly placed on that spec­trum). You then cat­e­go­rize poten­tial or actu­al picks based on their loca­tion on the spec­trum and eval­u­ate accord­ing to polit­i­cal per­spec­tive. In a vari­ant of this approach, you select a sub­set of issues you deem to be of prime impor­tance in judg­ing a candidate’s world­view and make an eval­u­a­tion based on only those issues.

The sec­ond way has to do with assess­ing a run­ning mate as a per­son. You look at their entire life expe­ri­ence, the choic­es they’ve made, the behav­ior and per­son­al qual­i­ties they’ve exhib­it­ed, and who they are. A reduc­tive ver­sion of this approach cat­e­go­rizes a poten­tial can­di­date sole­ly by race and gen­der and stops there. A more nuanced approach also seeks to uncov­er the moti­va­tions for the choic­es a can­di­date has made: Is this per­son moti­vat­ed by regard for social jus­tice and the pub­lic inter­est, and does this per­son act con­sis­tent­ly with that moti­va­tion? If they pos­sess priv­i­lege, have they used their priv­i­lege to advance social justice?

The third way has to do with assess­ing a run­ning mate’s record of suc­cess in pub­lic life. Allow­ing for the con­text in which a pub­lic fig­ure is oper­at­ing, has he or she been suc­cess­ful in bring­ing about change? What range and breadth of expe­ri­ence does the can­di­date have? Could the run­ning mate actu­al­ly be pres­i­dent if necessary?

The fourth lens is more straight­for­ward­ly polit­i­cal. Will the vice pres­i­den­tial pick help the top of the tick­et get elect­ed? Here a can­di­date needs to con­sid­er not only obvi­ous facts (like a run­ning mate’s home state) but also how well the tick­et will func­tion as a team.

The ide­o­log­i­cal lit­mus test is the pri­ma­ry approach that has been adopt­ed by var­i­ous crit­ics (includ­ing Jodi Jacob­son in In These Times) rush­ing to slam Clinton’s selec­tion of Kaine. But the ide­o­log­i­cal lit­mus test (and its hand­pick a few issues” vari­ant) is flawed. It’s use­ful as a short­hand for cat­e­go­riz­ing politi­cians, and it’s a tool that almost every­one uses. But, by itself, it’s use­less in mak­ing more com­plex judg­ments. Pol­i­tics is a team sport. A politi­cian who is always right” but nev­er con­vinces oth­ers to go along is of lim­it­ed use in gen­er­at­ing social change. Like­wise, a politi­cian who is always right but doesn’t lis­ten to those with con­trast­ing opin­ions will nev­er self-cor­rect or show capac­i­ty for change and nev­er be able to forge the work­able com­pro­mis­es that are the essence of leg­isla­tive progress.

I have no wish to defend Kaine against spe­cif­ic charges of being wrong or out-of-step on a par­tic­u­lar set of poli­cies or issues. What I can say from per­son­al expe­ri­ence is that Kaine will always give a thought­ful defense of the posi­tions that he does take. I can also say that he is will­ing to lis­ten to oth­er ideas and con­sid­er alter­na­tive points of view in a respect­ful way. (Full dis­clo­sure: Kaine accept­ed a part-time teach­ing role at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rich­mond, where I teach, after his term as gov­er­nor end­ed in 2010. My spouse, Adria Scharf, has lob­bied Kaine on for­eign pol­i­cy issues in her role as direc­tor of the Rich­mond Peace Edu­ca­tion Center.)

What’s impor­tant to me is not that Kaine and I agree on every­thing. (I vot­ed for Bernie Sanders.) It’s that I know, first, if I put forth a seri­ous argu­ment, he is going to take it seri­ous­ly and respect­ful­ly and, sec­ond, his rea­son­ing is going to be moti­vat­ed by a con­cern for the pub­lic inter­est and advanc­ing social jus­tice. That — and not an unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tion of total agree­ment — is what we should expect from our elect­ed officials.

So let’s look at those oth­er approach­es. Who is Tim Kaine and what has he accom­plished in pub­lic life?

A pro­gres­sive who gets things done

To answer those ques­tion, con­text is every­thing. Cen­tral Vir­ginia and the Rich­mond region for much of the 20th cen­tu­ry was one of the most racist places in the Amer­i­can South. Rich­mond was the place that put up mon­u­ments to Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als, pro­mul­gat­ed the myth of the Lost Cause and where many whites viewed the moniker Cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­a­cy” with pride rather than shame. More con­crete­ly, it also red­lined strug­gling black com­mu­ni­ties, bull­dozed pros­per­ous black neigh­bor­hoods to put in high­ways and sound­ed the call for resis­tance to school deseg­re­ga­tion after Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion. Rich­mond was also the place where city offi­cials engi­neered the rushed annex­a­tion of an over­whelm­ing­ly white sec­tion of adja­cent Chester­field Coun­ty in order to main­tain a major­i­ty white elec­torate in the munic­i­pal elec­tions of 1970 and thus white con­trol of city government.

That maneu­ver land­ed Rich­mond in fed­er­al court. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can­celed the local elec­tions of 1972. When local elec­tions final­ly resumed in 1977, a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal sys­tem was imposed — a dis­trict based elec­toral sys­tem that assured pro­por­tion­al black rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Because, by this time, Rich­mond (despite annex­a­tion) had become a major­i­ty black city, this meant in effect major­i­ty black rep­re­sen­ta­tion on city council.

In 1977, a major­i­ty black coun­cil was indeed elect­ed, and lawyer Hen­ry L. Marsh became the city’s first African-Amer­i­can may­or (may­ors were then coun­cil mem­bers select­ed by fel­low mem­bers to serve in the mayor’s seat). After more than 300 years of naked racial oppres­sion, this was a momen­tous accom­plish­ment. But Rich­mond also became a clas­sic case of a so-called hol­low prize: At the very moment African-Amer­i­cans took polit­i­cal con­trol of the city, the city was declin­ing large­ly in response to the racial deseg­re­ga­tion of city schools (final­ly effect­ed beyond token inte­gra­tion by court order in 1970) and the rever­sal of a fed­er­al rul­ing that would have forced Rich­mond, Hen­ri­co Coun­ty, and Chester­field Coun­ty schools to merge in order to pre­vent de fac­to seg­re­ga­tion of schools. Around the same time, Virginia’s leg­is­la­ture effec­tive­ly blocked fur­ther annex­a­tion of sub­ur­ban ter­ri­to­ry and pop­u­la­tion by Vir­ginia cen­tral cities.

These local mea­sures inter­act­ed with dam­ag­ing nation­al trends that harmed many Amer­i­can cities dur­ing this era. The sub­ur­ban­iza­tion of Richmond’s job mar­ket began in the 1970s, but as more and more jobs moved to the sub­urbs, the coun­ties were able to block repeat­ed efforts to imple­ment a region­al mass tran­sit sys­tem to allow car­less res­i­dents to access sub­ur­ban job oppor­tu­ni­ties. Under Virginia’s pecu­liar munic­i­pal law struc­ture, where­by cities are legal­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly sep­a­rate from coun­ties, Rich­mond was also dis­ad­van­taged by the enor­mous res­i­den­tial pop­u­la­tion growth in Hen­ri­co and Chester­field. The pop­u­la­tion and tax bases of the sub­ur­ban coun­ties boomed at the same time pop­u­la­tion in Rich­mond itself declined.

This was the Rich­mond in the last decade of the 20th cen­tu­ry: strug­gling schools, con­cen­trat­ed pover­ty, extreme­ly high inci­dence of crime and inad­e­quate resources from the local and state lev­el to even begin to tack­le the prob­lems. Need­less to say these con­di­tions and Richmond’s his­to­ry did not inspire a high lev­el of trust across racial lines. The con­ser­v­a­tive dai­ly news­pa­per Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch made sport of city government’s strug­gles and fail­ures — strug­gles that were all too real and often exac­er­bat­ed by a cul­ture of in-fight­ing with­in the city council.

To be blunt, few mid­dle class pro­fes­sion­als in this time peri­od were invest­ing in the City of Rich­mond: mov­ing in, buy­ing a home, send­ing kids to pub­lic schools, get­ting involved in local pub­lic life. Kaine and his wife Anne Holton did — and did so ful­ly con­scious of both their racial priv­i­lege and their oblig­a­tion to advance racial jus­tice in their pri­vate and pub­lic lives. Kaine worked as a civ­il rights lawyer for the city, then took the step into pol­i­tics in 1994 by win­ning elec­tion to city coun­cil. Kaine made it his mis­sion to build strong rela­tion­ships with African-Amer­i­can lead­ers, and by 1998 was elect­ed may­or — the first white may­or since the 1977 restruc­tur­ing to have the sup­port of the major­i­ty of black coun­cil members.

Kaine and Holton were in effect ear­ly investors in the propo­si­tion that the City of Rich­mond, wide­ly seen as a bas­ket case, could in fact begin a turn­around — if it addressed its racial inequities head on. Kaine did that by chal­leng­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing and cham­pi­oning Richmond’s long-belea­guered pub­lic schools. Kaine played a major role in mak­ing Rich­mond pol­i­tics more about prob­lem-solv­ing than about race-based coali­tions. And his exam­ple showed oth­ers (white and black) that pos­i­tive change in Rich­mond was pos­si­ble and that this was a city worth invest­ing in.

Twen­ty years lat­er, Rich­mond is a city in recov­ery. Its pop­u­la­tion is now up to 220,000, the high­est lev­el since the 1970s, and Rich­mond is seen as a hot place to move to or vis­it. Many chal­leng­ing prob­lems remain, includ­ing a 25 per­cent pover­ty rate, but city gov­ern­ment has a launched an ambi­tious, cross-sec­tor pover­ty reduc­tion ini­tia­tive that that aims to cut child pover­ty in half with­in 15 years. (Full dis­clo­sure: I helped lead the effort as the city’s first direc­tor of the new­ly-estab­lished Office of Com­mu­ni­ty Wealth Building.)

In the last year, a robust mul­tira­cial cit­i­zens’ move­ment has devel­oped to advo­cate for more fund­ing for Rich­mond Pub­lic Schools. Richmond’s prob­lems are deep, but there is now a wide­spread, mul­tira­cial con­sen­sus that the city can­not per­pet­u­ate long-stand­ing pat­terns of inequity for anoth­er generation.

It’s no exag­ger­a­tion to say that Kaine played a key role in help­ing a his­toric Amer­i­can city stop its decline and move to a much more pos­i­tive trajectory.

Kaine repli­cat­ed this polit­i­cal suc­cess at the state lev­el. Upon being elect­ed gov­er­nor in 2005, he was rou­tine­ly described as the most pro­gres­sive gov­er­nor in Virginia’s his­to­ry. Kaine faced chal­lenges at almost every turn from Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors, but got a key vic­to­ry by con­vinc­ing the leg­is­la­ture to fund his top edu­ca­tion­al pri­or­i­ty, a major expan­sion of the Vir­ginia Preschool Ini­tia­tive. Enroll­ment in the Vir­ginia Preschool Ini­tia­tive grew 40 per­cent between 2005 – 2006 and 2009 – 2010, and has con­tin­ued to increase since then. Pre‑K is now an accept­ed part of Virginia’s edu­ca­tion­al landscape.

In short, Kaine knows how to win — both polit­i­cal­ly and leg­isla­tive­ly — as a lib­er­al in a con­ser­v­a­tive-lean­ing envi­ron­ment. Kaine’s guber­na­to­r­i­al vic­to­ry in 2005 and ear­ly sup­port for Barack Oba­ma helped make the seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble hap­pen in 2008 — Vir­ginia gave its elec­toral votes to a Demo­c­rat for the first time in half a cen­tu­ry. Just years after promi­nent polit­i­cal sci­en­tists had declared the entire South off lim­its to Democ­rats in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions for the next gen­er­a­tion, Vir­ginia shift­ed from red to blue-lean­ing. Kaine helped make that happen.

A polit­i­cal­ly smart choice

This obser­va­tion leads to the fourth cri­te­ri­on: Will Kaine help Clin­ton win?

The skep­ti­cal argu­ment might run as fol­lows: Sanders sup­port­ers dis­il­lu­sioned by the choice will now choose to sit home, where­as with a dif­fer­ent can­di­date (Eliz­a­beth War­ren?) they would have been more energized.

That the­sis is ques­tion­able on its face. Stan­dard polit­i­cal sci­ence mod­els of elec­tions in a two-par­ty sys­tem indi­cate that par­ties have an incen­tive to tack toward the mid­dle in order to attract inde­pen­dent vot­ers. Kaine does not have the pol­i­tics or nation­al fol­low­ing of Sanders and War­ren, but he has shown he can win in a swing state. Are there real­ly more Sanders vot­ers in the swing states that decide pres­i­den­tial elec­tions who will stay home because of Hillary’s VP pick than there are mod­er­ate vot­ers who might use the VP choice to help decide between Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump? (In his 2012 Sen­ate race against George Allen, Kaine won 58 per­cent of self-described mod­er­ate vot­ers, who com­prised 45 per­cent of vot­ers in that election.)

More impor­tant­ly, why is it assumed that Sanders sup­port­ers, just because they may not have heard of Kaine, may not in fact come to like him — a lot — once they get to know him and wit­ness his per­for­mance on the cam­paign trail? There are dif­fer­ent ways to be an effec­tive pro­gres­sive. Direct­ly chal­leng­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing — and win­ning — in a south­ern city marked by entrenched seg­re­ga­tion is sure­ly one of them.

Con­verse­ly, the polit­i­cal ben­e­fits of Kaine’s selec­tion are quite clear. First, Kaine’s nom­i­na­tion vir­tu­al­ly takes Vir­ginia off the table as a seri­ous­ly con­test­ed state, mak­ing Trump’s elec­toral math far more daunt­ing. Kaine may also pos­i­tive­ly influ­ence Clinton’s chances in neigh­bor­ing North Carolina.

Sec­ond, judg­ing by their first joint appear­ance Sat­ur­day, Clin­ton and Kaine seem to gen­uine­ly like each oth­er and have a pos­i­tive chem­istry that can help ral­ly the troops and inspire vot­ers. In this drea­ry elec­toral sea­son, Kaine’s native opti­mism and pos­i­tive spir­it are a wel­come anti­dote to Trumpian apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism. Kaine is also a ter­rif­ic team play­er, and there sim­ply will not be any of the wrong kind of dra­ma in the rela­tion­ship between Clin­ton and her choice for No. 2.

Yes, one can and some­times should argue with some of Kaine’s pol­i­cy posi­tions. But one can­not argue that his life has not shown a deep com­mit­ment to social justice.

One also can­not argue he is unfit to serve as pres­i­dent should the need arise. Kaine served as exec­u­tive of a promi­nent state and has sub­stan­tial for­eign pol­i­cy exper­tise as a mem­ber of the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, where he has chal­lenged open-end­ed mil­i­tary com­mit­ments in Iraq and Afghanistan and intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to revise the War Pow­ers Resolution.

And one can­not argue that Kaine does not know how to win an elec­tion. He’s unde­feat­ed in his polit­i­cal career.

On the con­trary, the selec­tion of Kaine will bol­ster Clinton’s chances of win­ning an elec­tion that the coun­try can’t afford for her to lose.

Thad Williamson is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of lead­er­ship stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Richmond.
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