Amid all the speculation over Hillary Clinton's possible selection of Tim Kaine as her running mate, jaundiced observers might detect a subtle pattern.
Politico has run a piece on "The Left's Beef With Tim Kaine" full of quotes from progressives who feel Kaine is too "establishment" and lacks "progressive backbone." In the view of The New Republic, Kaine is "Too Boring to Be Clinton's Running-Mate." Aside from that, though, TNR makes clear he is "supremely qualified to be vice president," what with his Harvard Law degree, abundant experience in office, and his status as a "cautious centrist."
Then there is the Washington Post, which recently asked "What's a Nice Guy Like Tim Kaine Doing in a Campaign Like This?" It notes that Kaine is "lauded by Republicans and Democrats, alike," and terms Kaine a "pragmatist with political savvy," "contemplative," possessed of "humility," and—in the words of one former Republican congressman—"a thoroughly honest and decent man."
If vice presidential picks are supposed to balance the ticket, then you can see how this version of Kaine makes him the perfect tonic for voters averse to Clinton, whose name does not evoke terms like humility, honesty, niceness and decency. And while Kaine's supposed image as a pragmatic centrist might not endear him to the Bernie Sanders crowd, for political moderates it could take some of the sting out of the increasingly leftist tone Clinton has taken by proposing a "public option" in health care and making college "free" for most families.
Much about these characterizations of Kaine is accurate. He is, indeed, honest and decent. And nice—he can disagree pleasantly, and he rarely stoops to partisan smashmouth. He is a devout Catholic who still drops by his old church, St. Elizabeth's, where he used to sing in the choir. He is genial and extremely bright: At a Public Square hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch two years ago, Kaine gave a 40-minute lecture on the history of presidential and congressional war powers without notes or hesitation.
But is he the centrist recent coverage has made him out to be? Hardly.
True, he doesn't wave a pitchfork like Elizabeth Warren. And his most notable effort in the Senate has been his lonely campaign to get Congress to vote on the use of military force against ISIS and other terrorist organizations. That insistence upon constitutional exactitude puts him crosswise with President Obama, who maintains that he has all the authority he needs to order military operations against terrorists—but it also puts him crosswise with conservatives who support wide executive latitude in foreign policy. In essence, he is making the same argument that Dennis Kucinich and other liberals made about the need to check the unilateral executive exertions of the Bush administration.
And despite Kaine's difference with Obama over that issue, it's worth remembering that Kaine endorsed Obama, not Clinton, for the 2008 nomination. In fact, Kaine endorsed Obama back in early 2007, making him the first Democratic governor (and one of the first prominent Democrats, period) to do so. Obama reportedly considered Kaine for the vice presidency, but ended up tapping him to head the Democratic National Committee instead.
At the time, Kaine was governor of Virginia—and it's also worth reviewing his record in that office.
It didn't get off to an auspicious start. For his secretary of the commonwealth—a position that hands out many plum patronage appointments—Kaine chose Danny LeBlanc, the head of the Virginia AFL-CIO and an opponent of the state's right-to-work law. Republicans voted LeBlanc down, and Kaine blew a gasket. He fumed at the " McCarthy-style politics" and warned that Republicans "are going to regret it."
Within a week of taking office, Kaine also proposed a major tax hike for transportation—despite repeated representations earlier that he would not.
As lieutenant governor, Kaine "strongly rejected an increase in the gas tax" to pay for transportation improvements and "vowed never to seek an increase in the gas tax unless Virginia approves a constitutional amendment to prevent the legislature from raiding the state's transportation fund in tight budget times," The Washington Post reported in 2004. During a debate with his Republican gubernatorial opponent, Jerry Kilgore, Kaine vowed he would "veto any tax increase… unless the transportation trust fund is locked up. There's no way to tax and pave our way out of the transportation problem."
Although Kaine eventually suggested other mechanisms besides a constitutional amendment to protect transportation funds, he did not back away from his central idea. "I'm very clear on this," he said at another point. "I'm not going to ask people for any more revenue when there's no guarantee that the revenue will go to transportation." And when Kilgore predicted during their final debate that Kaine would raise taxes, Kaine shot back: "There you go again, Jerry, making stuff up."
Kaine won. On his seventh day in office, he proposed a $1-billion-per-year tax hike to pay for transportation projects.
Virginia's General Assembly balked. Two years later Kaine tried again, calling a special legislative session and proposing another billion-dollar tax hike. It went nowhere. The next year, he pulled the old Washington Monument ploy by closing 18 of the state's rest stops. And at the end of his term, in 2009, Kaine proposed a $1.9 billion tax hike—and the first increase in the state's income tax in decades.
To be fair, during much of Kaine's term he faced strong economic headwinds from the Great Recession, and was forced to cut more than $3 billion from the state budget. Those were real cuts, not the fake "cuts" talked about when politicians propose a spending hike of 20 percent and then increase spending by only 10 percent. Nevertheless, it's clear that Kaine would much rather have preferred to balance the state budget by raising taxes.
On social issues, too, Kaine hews close to liberal orthodoxy. He personally opposes capital punishment, but although he commuted certain death sentences he allowed others—including that of Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad—to go forward.
Kaine has never been shy about his antipathy to abortion. "I don't like it personally. I'm opposed to abortion," he recently told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, and he supports a few minor restrictions, such as parental-notification laws. As governor, he irked pro-choice groups by approving a "Choose Life" license plate, although he did so less out of sympathy for the cause than in observance of the principle that government should not discriminate among viewpoints. At the time, Virginia already had more than 200 specialty license plates.
At the same time, Kaine insists that "matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They're moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions." He has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. It's hard to go much higher than that.
He also has a 100 percent rating from the pro-gun-control Brady Campaign, and recently joined the House sit-in for gun control organized by Democrats. He gets high marks from Environment America, and is liked by the teachers' unions. (Kaine has supported expanded pre-K since his gubernatorial days.) He has sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage, favors higher spending on social-welfare programs, opposes privatizing Social Security, and so on. In fact, it's hard to think of a single position by which Kaine deviates from liberal Democratic orthodoxy.
And when it comes to a Democratic vice-presidential nominee, there's nothing wrong with that. "Politics is a team sport," as Kaine once put it himself. Indeed, it's likely that a fair number of Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter) would rather see the Democratic ticket headed by Kaine, an orthodox liberal who is likable and squeaky-clean, rather than Clinton, an orthodox liberal who is neither.
But the public should not be seduced by efforts to put Kaine in the center of the political spectrum when he is so far from it. Think of it this way: Suppose Kaine had a mirror image in the GOP—a Republican former head of the RNC who repeatedly tried to cut taxes, who sought to restrict abortion, who got high marks from the NRA and low marks from environmentalists, who wanted to cut social programs, who supported privatizing Social Security, and who was, in all visible respects, a down-the-line soldier for the political right.
Would the press term such a politician—no matter how genial and friendly—a "cautious centrist" and a "pragmatist"? Or would he be labeled an "arch-conservative" and an "ideologue"?
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.