Clinton test drives Kaine as VP: What it says about her judgment

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who will campaign with Clinton today, is not flashy. But he's well respected by his colleagues and brings a wealth of governing experience.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia gives a 'thumbs up' as he takes his seat at the head table for the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February. Senator Kaine, a devout Catholic, is one of several Democrats that Hillary Clinton is considering for her vice presidential running mate.

Hillary Clinton is test driving a potential running mate on the campaign trail in Virginia on Thursday – the state’s junior senator, Tim Kaine, a man most Americans have never heard of, but one whom some observers regard as the inevitable choice.

Mrs. Clinton's selection of a vice presidential candidate is the public's first opportunity to see her decision making as a presidential nominee, though they've had ample opportunity to observe her in other roles. 

Were she to settle on Senator Kaine, it would underscore her pragmatism and emphasis on experience, the very qualities she’s been trying to highlight from the beginning of her campaign. Though he humorously confesses he is “boring,” he is well-respected by Senate colleagues, and brings a wealth of governing experience.

“Kaine is a relatively safe pick, and it would reflect a methodical and cautious judgment on her part,” says Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

Kaine vs. other possible VPs

Kaine is not vrooming with charisma, as is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whom Clinton took for a spin before a wildly enthusiastic crowd last month. But neither will he upstage Clinton – which is a risk with Senator Warren – though he does play a mean harmonica and sometimes whips it out at campaign stops.

Nor does he come from a crucial rust-belt swing state, like the trade-deal critic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who might help beat back Donald Trump’s appeal to the angry working class. But Virginia, too, is a key swing state, and unlike Ohio, it has a Democratic governor who would appoint a Democrat to replace Kaine – though a special election would eventually have to follow.

Neither could Kaine nail the Hispanic vote quite like Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who is also reportedly under consideration. But the senator does speak Spanish fluently, going back to his time at Harvard Law School when he broke off for a year to teach at a Jesuit mission in Honduras. He may even help move a few more white males into Clinton’s column.

Most important, Kaine’s experience in elected office far exceeds that of Mr. Perez – or pretty much anyone else under consideration. He can check just about every box in government: from council member and mayor in Richmond, Va., to lieutenant governor, then governor, and now US senator. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2012, he served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee under President Obama.

Why flashy isn't always good

Clinton has said the most important factor for a running mate is someone qualified to step in as president if needed, as the Constitution provides. Mr. Obama seriously considered Kaine as a running mate in 2008, but one drawback was his lack of foreign policy credentials – something he has since made up for by serving on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees.

Don’t, however, mistake this potentially unflashy choice by Clinton for an ineffective one.

“The wise choice is not necessarily the bold choice. Just because something might be interpreted as being a cautious choice, that doesn’t make it a bad one,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

Not long ago, Republicans saw that flashiness could also amount to nothing more than a flash in a pan. When GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008, it electrified his campaign – but it didn’t power it past the finish line.

The charismatic Alaskan probably ended up hurting more than helping, says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the nonpartisan political newsletter, “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” published by the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The newsletter ranks Kaine as the most likely pick for Clinton.

“My general thinking on vice presidential picks is to follow the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm,” says Mr. Kondik. “I don’t think Kaine would do any harm to Clinton. He’s a pretty respected member of the Senate.”

And he has a clean record, says Mr. Farnsworth. "One thing that Kaine offers that is of great value to Hillary Clinton is the fact that he is scandal free."

'An honorable man'

Talk to lawmakers on the Hill who know Kaine, and they have nothing but respect for him. They use words like “trustworthy” and “a quality person” to describe a senator who openly points to his Catholic faith as his motivator. His character is unlikely to make up for Clinton’s trust deficit with the public, analysts say, but it reinforces the “safety” factor of this potential choice.

“This is an authentic person,” says Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of northern Virginia, where Clinton and Kaine will be campaigning Thursday afternoon. “He’s the real thing in terms of an honorable man, an honorable person.”

Congressman Connolly, too, casts aside the idea that a “safe” pick is somehow a pejorative.

“I don’t frame it as cautious or not … it’s about qualification to me. That is how she should make the decision,” Connolly says. “The world’s too dangerous and too complex and difficult to be fooling around about this with symbolic picks.”

Not liberal enough?

Perhaps the biggest downside of Kaine is that he may not be liberal enough for Bernie Sanders supporters. Like many Catholics, he personally opposes abortion. But he also says that government has no right to interfere with such intimate decisions.

Kaine argued on behalf of Obama to get “fast track” trade negotiating authority through Congress, and he has urged – to no avail so far – his fellow senators to formally authorize use of American military force in the fight against the Islamic State. (The president feels he already has that authority.)

“The liberal wing of the party might prefer Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders himself,” says Farnsworth, though Senator Sanders is not under consideration as a running mate. 

But as Farnsworth points out, Kaine has been a consistent vote for Democrats in the Senate. In addition, his more aggressive voice on national security issues – though at odds with more liberal Democrats – might work well with a public anxious about terrorism.

It’s also clear that, for liberals, the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president “offers a great deal of incentive” to support Clinton, a point underscored by Sanders’s endorsement of Clinton this week.

Still, the gap with progressives is one that Clinton has to weigh when considering Kaine – as well as how they might work together. She’ll get a better feel for that today, but don’t expect a decision until after Mr. Trump announces his choice of running mate, expected this week. That's one more factor for the methodical Clinton to consider.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.