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Why the Left Can Probably Live With Tim Kaine as the VP Nominee

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Andrew Harnik/AP

There’s little doubt that Sen. Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia is qual­i­fied to be vice pres­id­ent, and there­fore pres­id­ent if it came to that.

But wheth­er the former gov­ernor, lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, may­or, and na­tion­al party chair is qual­i­fied to win the sin­cere em­brace of grass­roots pro­gress­ives who flocked to Bernie Sanders’s cam­paign is a trick­i­er ques­tion.

As Sanders’s in­sur­gent bid enters its en­dgame, the ques­tion of who Hil­lary Clin­ton will tap for her tick­et looms lar­ger.

Kaine is a short-list main­stay. The 58-year-old has down­played the pos­sib­il­ity of be­ing Clin­ton’s choice while stop­ping well short of tak­ing him­self out of the run­ning.

The topline case for Kaine in­cludes his re­cord of vic­tor­ies in a cru­cial swing state (he’s nev­er lost an elec­tion), his flu­ency in Span­ish, and for­eign policy heft from ser­vice on the For­eign Re­la­tions and Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tees. He has no ob­vi­ous per­son­al or eth­ic­al bag­gage, and would score well in the “first, do no harm” cat­egory of VP at­trib­utes.

And of course it helps that his state’s cur­rent gov­ernor is a Demo­crat, so pick­ing Kaine doesn’t pave the way for an ap­poin­ted GOP re­place­ment in the Sen­ate.

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But Clin­ton is also be­lieved to be weigh­ing pro­gress­ive heavy­weights in­clud­ing Sens. Eliza­beth War­ren and Sher­rod Brown, so the pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee must con­sider wheth­er Kaine’s re­l­at­ively cent­rist im­age and some not­able breaks with the Left would fur­ther dampen the base’s ex­cite­ment over her cam­paign.

He’s cer­tainly no War­ren, by tem­pera­ment or his po­s­i­tion in Demo­crat­ic polit­ics. And he has not been at the cen­ter of battles over Wall Street and sev­er­al oth­er is­sues that have most an­im­ated the Sanders move­ment.

Low­ell Feld, a long­time ob­serv­er of Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic polit­ics and Kaine back­er, notes that Kaine ran for gov­ernor in 2005 as a “busi­ness friendly” can­did­ate.

“He hasn’t been a Bernie Sanders. He hasn’t been an Eliza­beth War­ren. But I don’t know that he could have got­ten elec­ted in Vir­gin­ia if he had,” said Feld, the founder and ed­it­or of the polit­ic­al blog Blue Vir­gin­ia.

“He is not an ideo­logue. He is cer­tainly not a left-wing ideo­logue in any way. If that’s what you want … that’s not Kaine,” he said, al­though he noted that Kaine has non­ethe­less been “pretty pro­gress­ive.”

Kaine doesn’t see eye-to-eye with pro­gress­ives or labor on free trade, a huge is­sue for Sanders’s back­ers bat­tling Clin­ton, who re­versed her earli­er sup­port for the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship and op­posed the deal dur­ing the cam­paign.

Kaine has voted for “fast track” trade au­thor­ity that would help Pres­id­ent Obama win pas­sage of TPP and clear the way for fu­ture trade deals—a big no-no for labor at a time when the AFL-CIO has just en­dorsed Clin­ton.

In an­oth­er fis­sure with the Sanders wing, he backed open­ing Vir­gin­ia’s coast to drilling. But Obama doesn’t back At­lantic drilling any­more, and Clin­ton has flatly come out against it too.

And Kaine doesn’t break with his party’s pro­gress­ive wing as much as his cent­rist im­age might sug­gest.

He gets very high marks from groups such as the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, and Planned Par­ent­hood—a de­vout Cath­ol­ic, he per­son­ally op­poses abor­tion, but sup­ports Roe v. Wade—and dis­mal rank­ings from groups that op­pose gun con­trol. He has also pushed for stronger vot­ing rights, which has be­come a prom­in­ent top­ic in 2016.

“It’s not fair to Tim to say he’s right of cen­ter. He’s pretty lib­er­al on a lot of things,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bri­an Schatz of Hawaii, a Clin­ton sup­port­er whose state went heav­ily for Sanders in its March caucus.

“He’s rep­res­ent­ing the state of Vir­gin­ia. That’s not the same as rep­res­ent­ing the state of Hawaii, but it’s im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that he has been with us on a lot of pro­gress­ive is­sues,” Schatz said.

In the Sen­ate, Kaine has made a point of work­ing with Re­pub­lic­ans—act­ively seek­ing out GOP part­ners on le­gis­la­tion whenev­er pos­sible—and has fo­cused on some is­sues that cut across ideo­lo­gic­al lines, in­clud­ing an ag­gress­ive push to re­as­sert Con­gress’s role in de­term­in­ing when Amer­ic­an troops go in­to battle.

Kaine is hardly viewed as a pro­gress­ive lead­er at a time when the Left wants the Clin­ton cam­paign to em­brace the goals of the Sanders move­ment—even as Sanders him­self faces the end of his in­sur­gent cam­paign. A knock on Kaine, in short, is that he would not quick­en the pulses of very lib­er­al voters.

But he may not have to.

Becky Bond, a former seni­or ad­viser to the Sanders cam­paign, has some mis­giv­ings about Kaine, call­ing him a “con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat.”

But she has huge mis­giv­ings about Don­ald Trump, and the vet­er­an of pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­ing says the lat­ter is the more im­port­ant mo­tiv­a­tion.

“The pro­gress­ives be­hind Bernie and the neo­lib­er­als be­hind Sec. Clin­ton have very dif­fer­ent ideas about how Demo­crats should gov­ern. Pick­ing a pro­gress­ive run­ning mate won’t change that,” Bond wrote in an email. “That said, Bernie and Clin­ton sup­port­ers share a big pri­or­ity—crush­ing Trump in Novem­ber.

“So to the ex­tent that choos­ing a pro­gress­ive run­ning mate might help with base Demo­crat­ic turnout, I’d like to see that hap­pen. But even if she chooses to run with a fel­low con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat like Tim Kaine, I don’t see it chan­ging pro­gress­ives’ de­sire to deal Trump a hu­mi­li­at­ing de­feat this fall,” she said.

Some oth­er pro­gress­ives are walk­ing a fine line of not at­tack­ing Kaine, while non­ethe­less broadly ur­ging Clin­ton to run to the left.

Mo­ve­On.org de­clined a re­quest for com­ment on Kaine. In­stead the group offered some more gen­er­al ad­vice to Clin­ton.

“The No. 1 takeaway for Clin­ton, and Demo­crats, from Bernie Sanders’s cam­paign should be the power of a bold pro­gress­ive mes­sage and plat­form. Demo­crats up and down the bal­lot—in­clud­ing the vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee—would be well served to not only em­brace Sanders’s mes­sage but also to ag­gress­ively run on his pro­gress­ive policies,” said Ilya Shey­man, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Mo­ve­On.org Polit­ic­al Ac­tion, which is the group’s PAC arm.

In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee cofounder Adam Green de­clined to com­ment on Kaine spe­cific­ally.

But he said the VP choice is one of the most im­port­ant sig­nals to pro­gress­ives.

“The vice pres­id­en­tial pick and the plat­form are prox­ies for how Hil­lary Clin­ton will cam­paign in the gen­er­al elec­tion,” Green said. “If they are big, bold, pro­gress­ive, and in­spir­ing, that sends a lar­ger sig­nal to Sanders sup­port­ers and swing gen­er­al-elec­tion voters about the kind of cam­paign she is run­ning.”

National Journal

Ben Geman is a National Journal Energy and Environment Correspondent, and has nearly a decade of experience on the beat. Before joining National Journal he spent four years as an energy correspondent for The Hill, where he helped launch the paper's energy blog. From 2004-2009, Ben was a reporter for Environment & Energy Publishing, writing for Greenwire and other E&E newsletters. Ben also worked at the newsletter Inside EPA, and before moving to Washington, D.C. in 2002 he wrote for several Boston-area newspapers, including the Boston Phoenix.

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