Exit Mr. Kaine

Sunday, January 10, 2010

ANYONE WHO'S had the experience of drawing out Timothy M. Kaine on the subject of his reading list will not soon forget the experience -- although it doesn't really take much to draw him out. Virginia's 70th governor is the rare politician whose infectious enthusiasm for books and ideas ranges so far beyond politics that one can easily imagine him as a popular professor of philosophy, history, public policy or practically any other subject that engaged his lively mind. Amid Richmond's dreary sound-bite politics, Mr. Kaine sometimes seemed like a different species of public official, one whose catholic interests and turbocharged intellectual energy were almost too kinetic for Virginia's slightly starchy capital.

In his four-year term as governor, which will end Jan. 16, Mr. Kaine's formidable talents, intellectual, political and otherwise, were put to the test by what he has correctly called a pivotal moment and a pivotal experience. The moment was the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, when a student gunman murdered 32 students and faculty. The experience was the most severe economic downturn since the 1930s.

In both instances, Mr. Kaine rose to the occasion, managing profound tragedy and severe financial hardship alike with compassion, competence and grace. He spent untold hours listening and ministering to the families of the victims at Tech, furnishing some of them with his personal cellphone number. And even in cutting hundreds of jobs and $7 billion from the state's budget, he did so with an eye to preserving the safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. Virginia's financial and budgetary travails have been no worse than those of other states, but its future is almost certainly brighter than most. His performance did the state proud.

The rap on Mr. Kaine is that his achievements in office were modest. This is at once true and somewhat unfair. On the one hand, he rightly cites a list of accomplishments: winning a ban on smoking in restaurants in a state long in thrall to the tobacco lobby; a joblessness rate well below the national average; the relocation of five Fortune 500 firms' headquarters to Virginia; a significant expansion of pre-kindergarten enrollment for poor children; reforms to the mental health system, the foster care system and pre-natal care for indigent women; a sharp drop in infant mortality; and the preservation of 400,000 acres of open space. In addition, under Mr. Kaine's leadership Virginia maintained its status as one of the best-managed states in the nation, one that remains attractive for families and corporations alike. It is no small feat that political scandal, that staple of statehouses from Baton Rouge to Springfield, is a rarity in Richmond and almost unknown in the executive branch.

On the other hand, he failed in two tries to address the state's most urgent problem, its massively underfunded transportation system. Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, was thwarted in those attempts by Republicans in the House of Delegates, some of them ideologically opposed to new taxes for any purpose whatsoever, others simply too cowardly to challenge their party's base. Some Republicans insisted that Mr. Kaine picked fights and seemed uninterested in bipartisan dealmaking; some of his legislative initiatives, they say, seemed designed mostly to force a showdown with the GOP. His governorship, they assert, was a time of unrealized potential. There may be some truth to that, but it seems equally true that the GOP leadership was determined not to lionize Mr. Kaine (as it did his Democratic predecessor, Mark R. Warner) by allowing him major legislative victories.

In the end, political and economic circumstances mostly beyond Mr. Kaine's control prevented him from attaining the ranks of the state's greatest governors. He is, as he often points out, the first governor in memory to leave the state with a budget no bigger than the one he inherited. But it is a measure of his decency that despite bruising battles and defeats, he remained unfailingly civil, good-humored and popular, even with many of his Republican adversaries. Nor did Virginia voters blame him for the legislative setbacks or the state's economic troubles; had Virginia's constitution allowed governors a second consecutive term, he almost certainly would have been reelected.

Instead, Mr. Kaine will continue to apply his considerable energies on a national stage as his party's chief fundraiser and a top political strategist. We sometimes wonder if that is the best use of his skills; Mr. Kaine -- cerebral, wonkish and gregarious -- seems a little miscast as a partisan knife-fighter. Still, the national Democrats' gain is Virginia's loss, and his legacy in the commonwealth, in addition to good governance, will be to have stamped its political culture with his signature blend of brains, proficiency and integrity.


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