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 Williamson

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.

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