The substantive concern is that Kaine supported granting the president “fast track” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and backs free trade in general. He also signed a letter calling for relaxing oversight standards when it comes to measuring the risk of sizable institutions that control huge amounts of assets.
These moves, some have argued, signal Clinton’s true governing instincts — she would ultimately support the TPP and would go easy on the big banks once elected, despite positions of convenience she adopted when fending off a serious primary challenge from Bernie Sanders.
The political concern is that the choice of Kaine could signal that the Clinton campaign is prioritizing the need to move to the center — which increasingly does not exist — over keeping the liberal base galvanized and winning over Sanders supporters. Others have argued that Donald Trump will use former DNC chair Kaine’s positions to attack the Clinton ticket as crony-capitalist, part of the corrupt D.C. elite, and too cozy with Wall Street. This is ludicrous, since Trump would repeal Dodd-Frank and cut taxes deeply on the rich, and has no real trade agenda other than threatening destructive trade wars. But news orgs continue to treat Trump’s anti-trade and anti-elite bluster with great credulity.
These are all understandable concerns. Here’s what I can report about the Kaine pick.
1) He is a serious lawmaker and public servant who cares about the governing process. Senator Kaine was a prominent advocate for the nuclear deal with Iran. But more to the point, he played a high profile role in explaining and arguing for the controversial process by which the Iran deal’s framework ultimately made it through Congress. Though that process looked touch-and-go — critics feared it would allow Republicans to torpedo the deal and give Iran an easy way of walking away — Kaine argued that ultimately, it would defy those fears and allow the deal to proceed. He turned out to be right, displaying good governing process instincts and a willingness to put in the hard work of addressing legitimate skepticism through persistent argument.
2) Kaine is good on other issues important to progressives. Kaine, who is fluent in Spanish after having worked as a Catholic missionary in Honduras, has been a longtime advocate of immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for the undocumented. But there’s more. Frank Sharry, the president of America’s Voice, tells me that his group recently asked lawmakers and candidates to meet with undocumented immigrants who would benefit from Obama’s executive action shielding millions from deportation — which had been blocked by the courts — to learn what was at stake. Kaine “jumped at the opportunity,” Sharry tells me, and those immigrants who met with Kaine came away convinced he understood their struggles.
“Kaine gets the Latino immigrant community,” Sharry says. “He gets their experiences. He gets their dreams and aspirations. He a champion on their issues. He gets that undocumented immigrants who work hard and hope for policy change are Americans in all but paperwork.”
Kaine has been a longtime proponent of closing the gun background check loophole, and has brought his personal experiences to bear in advocating for gun reform, having been Governor of Virginia at the time of the Virginia Tech massacre. Kaine would thus be well positioned to act as Clinton’s point man on the issue if she wins the presidency, much as Joe Biden has done for President Obama. It’s true that Kaine is personally anti-abortion, but he has voted for funding Planned Parenthood and against restricting access to abortion. And as Ed Kilgore recently explained, in one sense his approach to the issue shows off a type of depth that could help politically: Kaine is skilled and experienced at navigating hot-button religious and cultural issues and explaining nuanced positions in that context, even if he isn’t fully aligned with progressives on them.
3) Kaine’s position on trade and Wall Street is nuanced. He is not a class warrior in the Sanders mold, but neither is Clinton. According to a Clinton campaign adviser, Kaine privately committed to Clinton that he will oppose the TPP, and he will confirm this publicly in the near future. If Kaine does publicly come out against the TPP, that could actually be a plus for opponents, in the sense that the Clinton ticket will have confirmed its opposition in the context of the general election, as opposed to merely during the primaries against Sanders. That could give opponents something to hold Clinton to later.
It’s also worth noting that Kaine supports Dodd-Frank and has voted against efforts to gut the law’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Clinton adviser confirms that Kaine has pledged to support her Wall Street reform agenda, which includes defending Dodd-Frank and boosting oversight of the shadow banking sector. Here again, this is something that we could see confirmed publicly in the near future, and this is something progressives can hold the ticket to later.
Beyond Kaine, the Clinton campaign insists that she will not concede any space to the left for Trump to attack on trade, by arguing that only she has real proposals on jobs, wages, and helping workers dislocated by trade deals. “We do not think Donald Trump’s empty rhetoric on trade is a substitute for that, especially since he is a hypocrite on outsourcing,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon argues.
Mo Elleithee, a Democratic operative who has advised Kaine for many years, agrees that Kaine does not really share Sanders’s ideological and economic worldview. But he says Kaine views government as having an important role in leveling the economic playing field, noting that Kaine ran a vocational school for poor children in Honduras and later acted as a civil rights attorney on housing cases. “Kaine has never been a class warrior,” Elleithee tells me. “But he believes that government ought to be used to help increase opportunity and boost economic mobility for everyone.”
In a sense, all this makes Kaine a good fit for Clinton, both ideologically and temperamentally. If Kaine does not fully share Bernie Sanders’s worldview, particularly his view of politics through the prism of class struggle and the imperative of breaking the power of the plutocracy, neither does she. But both Kaine and Clinton have been devoted to public service for much of their lives. Both have long been more comfortable talking and thinking about policy than about politics. Both care deeply about government, which they see as an essential agent for improving people’s lives. And both have long been more in the workhorse mold than in the showhorse one.