With Elizabeth Warren following the Ted Cruz model last week, imploring the House faithful to defy their president even at risk of a government shutdown, you had to wonder: Is the Democratic Party heading for a schism that could rival the tea party-establishment battles on the Republican side?
Warren has established herself as a leader of an anti-Wall Street, economic-populist left. Her side of the party is suspicious of international trade, big business and the economists and financiers who defined Clintonomics in the 1990s.
The party’s more moderate branch, meanwhile, has been battered by electoral losses in red states, rhetorical attacks from the left for being corporate apologists or worse, and, most of all, the stagnation of middle-class incomes. The slowing of economic mobility seems to undermine the Clintonian premise that economic growth, rather than income redistribution, should be government’s primary goal.
Is there a way to bridge the divide as the party gears up for 2016? One Democrat wrestling with that question is Tim Kaine, Virginia’s junior senator.
“Traditionally we’ve had a spectrum of views in our party, but we haven’t had wings,” Kaine said during a visit to The Post last week. “I’m a little concerned that we might be moving toward wings.”
If it is true that voters get the leaders they deserve, then Virginians are doing something right, because their Senate delegation of Mark Warner and Kaine is among the nation’s most capable. At first glance the two also seem interchangeable: They are both pragmatic former Democratic governors who tried to work across the aisle in a purple state.
But whereas Warner has branded himself as defiantly bipartisan, or even nonpartisan, Kaine — an early Barack Obama supporter whose biography includes a stint as national party chair — has tried to stake out a clearer ideological position, and then prove that compromises can be achieved from there.
After Warner’s near-death experience last month, when Republican Ed Gillespie almost unseated him, critics said Warner should have spent more time appealing to the base and less touting his willingness to work with Republicans.
“I would generally reject that,” Kaine told me. “Virginians want you to work across the aisle.” But, he added, the best politics is “to be affirmatively proud of who you are and what you are, and then work together.”
What would such an approach look like over the next two years? For Kaine, it has at least four elements. One is backing Hillary Clinton for president. He believes she can hold the party together even though she will take some grief from the left.
A second entails a constructive model of opposition once Republicans take over the Senate next month.
“Thirty-one of 46 of us have never been in the minority, and the only model of minority behavior we’ve seen is ‘we-want-him-to-fail’ obstructionism,” Kaine said. “I think it would be better to draw a few really sharp contrasts than to fight on everything” — better politically as well as for the Senate and the country.
Third is to show seriousness about national security and foreign affairs. Kaine is one of three senators on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, and his leadership in writing and promoting a new Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq and Syria crosses ideological lines. The effort put him in opposition to Obama, who maintained until recently that he didn’t need congressional authorization; it distinguished him from doves and isolationists, who would rather not get involved; but, with a provision barring the use of ground troops, it also put him to the left of the administration, which says it doesn’t want to use troops but also opposes any such congressional restriction.
Most important, Kaine says, the party must reject the demonization of the wealthy and the successful but come up with “a credible income equality strategy . . . a human capital strategy . . . to make sure people can build a ladder of success.” Career and technical education has been one of Kaine’s signature issues in his first two years in the Senate.
In keeping with the non-demonization, Kaine was less alarmed than some in his party by the provision in the omnibus spending bill that increases the size of donations political parties can accept. Slipping the provision into a must-pass bill was “outrageous,” Kaine said, but reformers’ focus should be on fighting “dark money” — the increasing influence of secret donations to independent groups. “That’s the greatest corrupter of the system, more than whether a person can write a big check or even whether a corporation can write a big check.”
None of this is academic for Kaine, whose term ends in 2019, meaning that — like Warner — he will be up for reelection in a non-presidential, low-turnout year, traditionally not an advantage for Democrats.
Unless, of course, Hillary Clinton survives the primaries and has the sense to offer Kaine a spot on her ticket.