The Governor for Obama

By Michael Gerson
Friday, August 1, 2008

It is an extraordinary bit of political trivia that two popular red-state Democratic governors -- both in presidential battleground states -- spent time as Catholic lay missionaries in the developing world.

Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia taught at a Jesuit school in Honduras in the early 1980s, an experience he credits with turning his life toward public service. "It was life-changing to live among the poorest of the poor," he has said.

Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado moved his young family to Zambia for three years in the late 1980s to run a nutrition center -- spreading agricultural technology, caring for the sick, and digging graves for AIDS victims. The experience, he has explained, caused him to make time for the needy and unwanted: "This may be what Jesus meant when he said we must lay down our lives for others."

But maybe this shared background is neither extraordinary nor trivial. Both governors have succeeded in difficult ideological environments precisely because they represent a Catholic-influenced alternative to secular liberalism. Their vision of social justice, especially on poverty and civil rights, is informed by faith. And on right-to-life issues, they at least struggle to balance individual autonomy with the rights of the weak.

All this makes Kaine a serious vice presidential possibility. His social justice Catholicism fits seamlessly with Barack Obama's social gospel Protestantism. Kaine has a strong civil rights background -- as a lawyer at a small firm, he represented clients in housing discrimination and death penalty cases. He has been only a modestly successful governor but proved capable of rising to a large moment in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. While lacking foreign policy background, Kaine (like Obama) is viewed by national Democrats as a quick study.

But Kaine's performance on life issues is like watching a contortionist on a tightrope. He talks of "a presumption toward life and toward the protection of life," but says, as a government official, he must enforce existing law. So far, so good. But he has also said that, should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue to the states, he would veto new legislation outlawing abortion. Which means his moral views on the value of unborn life are so private he would overturn the will of the legislature to ensure they do not prevail. This is not "pro-life" in any meaningful sense.

Kaine is likable, religiously outspoken and relatively popular in a battleground state. By all of these measures, his fellow former missionary Bill Ritter should also be in the vice presidential mix.

Ritter has one of the most compelling stories in American politics. One of 12 children abandoned by an alcoholic father, he began working in construction at the age of 14 to support his family. He helped care for a disabled brother who died at age 6 -- an experience that, he says, taught him "the intrinsic value of life." He worked for years to reconcile with his estranged father, sometimes playing cards with him and his friends at the Salvation Army. As a prosecutor, he worked to steer nonviolent drug offenders toward treatment instead of prison. As governor, he has been a strong but responsible environmentalist. Recently, he has found himself in the middle of a messy fight between labor unions and businesses but has tried to broker a peace.

There is one political problem with Ritter: He is more authentically pro-life than Kaine. "It's something that comes to me as a matter of conscience about the beginning of human life," he has said. "I just can't come around to the right to choose." Running for governor, he assured voters he had no plans to push for legal changes on abortion. But he once affirmed that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, he would sign anti-abortion legislation that included exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. In the Democratic Party, there is no reason to take such a risky position except conscience.

Many national Democrats consider Ritter a cipher, with little reputation outside Colorado. But Ritter's story of personal struggle, service in Zambia and environmental leadership would appeal broadly. And picking a genuinely pro-life running mate would be a revolutionary decision by Obama -- helping remove the largest obstacle to broad, Democratic realignment.

If Obama wants to choose an advocate of Catholic social justice as his vice president, perhaps he should consider a consistent one.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company