Is Tim Kaine a Progressive?

As a progressive democrat, I was disappointed when Hillary chose Tim Kaine, a politician known as a centrist, for her running mate. Hillary, it seems to me, missed out on a chance to show her progressive good faith and to appeal to a critical part of the electorate. My personal preference was for Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a senator with a strong reform record and a proven concern for the plight of America’s working and middle class.

The choice of vice presidential partner, of course, is important for considerations other than the tactical one of getting elected. The prospective vice president is key not only as a trusted assistant in a Clinton administration, but as a possible future Democratic nominee.

In whatever role he plays, there are different ways of looking at Kaine from political perspective. One finds basically two narratives about him coming respectively from the Hillary and Bernie wings of the party. To begin with the Hillary side, he checks off many of the boxes we think of for a liberal politician. In his senate voting, he gets a respectable 90% rating from Americans for Democratic Action. Kaine takes generally liberal positions on immigration, healthcare,  gun control, the minimum wage, the environment, and energy. Despite a recent attempt to lighten up on small local banks, he is generally supportive of financial regulation. While he has made no secret of his personal opposition to abortion based on his religion, he recognizes the validity of Roe v. Wade, believing that decisions on such matters are beyond the government’s authority.

To his credit, Kaine has shown a strong personal commitment to civil rights over the years. His liberalism on that score has to be understood in the context of his Catholic upbringing. Educated in Jesuit schools, he absorbed the liberal tenets of Catholic social doctrine. While at law school, he took a year off to work for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Honduras. As a practicing attorney, he specialized in fair housing law, taking on cases that involved discrimination against racial minorities. He was elected mayor of the black-majority city of Richmond. And in his personal life, he involved himself in the community he served, attending a black-majority church and sending his three children to the integrated Richmond public schools.

The Bernie wing, on the other hand, raises valid questions about Kaine’s past connections and proclivities. Perhaps most critical is his long-time association with the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a home for middle-of-the-road Democrats who sought to combat leftward tendencies in the Democratic Party. Friendly to the corporate world, it embraced “market-based solutions” and sponsored such ideas as welfare reform, free trade, charter schools, and austerity budgets. It was central to the careers of such politicians as Sam Nunn, Bill Clinton, and Joe Lieberman and presumably provided a template for Tim Kaine.

Kaine, who governed a moderately conservative southern state during the George Bush years, could not avoid being brushed with DLC-type policies. Precluded by a conservative legislature from raising taxes, he presided over a regime of government cut-backs and frequent concessions to corporate entities. He focused on balanced budgets, although this was part of his duty as a chief executive, as required by the state constitution. Later on in the Senate, he apparently bought into the general wisdom fostered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies that trade agreements are unalloyed benefits.

The key question one has to ask is how Kaine stands today on the corporate world’s agenda of market-based solutions and reduced regulation. Would he generally support it, or would he align himself with progressive policies that dial back corporate influence and uphold the broad public interest. To be fair to Kaine, times have changed since he was associated with the DLC. The Great Recession of 2008, which showed what can happen when financial regulations are lax, and the rise of economic inequality in America have produced strong correctives within the Democratic Party. The Occupy Movement, the rise of Elizabeth Warren, and the vibrant campaign of Bernie Sanders are clear illustrations of the new climate.

One can take some comfort from Kaine’s stance on one issue where most Democrats, including Obama and many progressives, have been badly led astray: education (see our previous blogs on this subject). While Democrats these days typically sing the praises of charter schools, Kaine sees through the siren call of the education reformers, having observed public education up close in Virginia. He understand that charter schools, heavily supported by corporate backers and generally not organic to their communities, have drawn federal and state funds away from existing public schools and shown, at best, only mixed results. In absorbing public money, they threaten one of America’s most democratic of institutions. Kaine and his wife Anne Holton (Virginia’s Secretary of Education) are proven supporters of public schools. Kaine’s progressivism on this one issue is a tea leaf in his favor.

But first Clinton has to get elected. And it remains to be seen how Kaine will enhance the ticket, about which I am somewhat skeptical, before we can speculate on how he might affect a prospective Clinton administration.


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