2020 Foresight: Tim Kaine, The Vanilla Candidate

Sec. Clinton’s VP pick delivered his home state of Virginia on election night. Can he parlay that failed bid into his own successful run for the White House? This article is part of a larger series exploring the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates in depth.

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (VP Stacey Abrams) • Pete ButtigiegMike Gravel

Picking up the Pieces

Unlike some of the other prospective candidates, Tim Kaine has the benefit of having some success in the national spotlight. Although the ticket’s efforts ultimately proved futile, the Clinton campaign’s victory in Virginia (however razor thin) was the linchpin of their strategy. Kaine delivered, and in doing so proved his electoral value despite the Brooklyn Titanic crashing up against the iceberg known as Trump Tower.

Tim Kaine was first elected to the United States Senate in 2012 after serving as Governor of Virginia for four years, joining his predecessor as Governor, Mark Warner, among the ranks of the upper chamber. He served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2009–2011, which makes him a well-connected figure among the establishment wing’s inner circles. Prior to running for statewide office, Kaine served as the Mayor of Richmond. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama strongly considered naming Tim Kaine as his running mate before ultimately settling on then-Sen. Joe Biden. His strong resume makes him as qualified as any other candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020.

In a way, Kaine embodies many of the same qualities as Clinton: foreign policy expertise, a depth of experience, a “party insider” lifetime membership card, and a limited scope of electoral appeal. For Clinton, 30+ years of attacks by the “right-wing smear machine” had taken their toll in making her a highly controversial figure. Tim Kaine has the opposite problem: he is, well, kind of boring and unremarkable. He would struggle to motivate progressive activists on his own merits, and would instead have to rely on their motivation to defeat Donald Trump. Does this sound familiar at all? It should, since it’s the same dynamic that played out for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Most Unoffensive Candidate

TIm Kaine is like vanilla ice cream; nobody really dislikes it and you can’t really go wrong with picking vanilla, there are just other, more appealing options to choose from and not a lot of people who would pick vanilla ice cream as their favorite. Kaine’s sober style, wholesome mannerisms, and deeply religious background create quite a contrast with Trump’s brand of brash, temperamental radicalism. Can Tim Kaine captivate the hearts and minds of voters with enough “dad jokes” to win the presidency? Only time will tell. As a party insider, Kaine is unlikely to ruffle feathers and would generally be an all-around acceptable, if unexciting, candidate in 2020. Kaine is a thoroughbred political moderate, neglecting to voice support for many of the issues that have become litmus tests for the progressive wing of the party.

Notably, Tim Kaine is one of the few potential candidates actively working to articulate a foreign policy vision. Politico Magazine published an article written by Kaine arguing that Democrats “can’t defeat Trump on domestic policy alone.” His role as a member of the Armed Services Committee and Committee on Foreign Affairs give him a level of experience with international politics that is unmatched by any of the other oft-mentioned prospects. “A 21st Century Truman Doctrine” should be one of the linchpins of Kaine’s 2020 policy platform. However, Kaine co-sponsored a bill with Bob Corker that would vastly expand the war powers authorization that has been used to wage perpetual war in the Middle East since the beginning of this century. Expect that to come under intense scrutiny from the more progressive candidates in primary debates. This position, however, generally aligns with the policy consensus in Washington that gives unquestioned support to the military-industrial complex.

Perhaps the most interesting factoid about Tim Kaine is that he is actually fluent in Spanish, which gives him the ability to speak directly to the party’s latino base. He picked up the language while serving as a Jesuit missionary in Honduras. In fact, during the vetting process for Vice Presidential candidates one Clinton aide remarked that Kaine was more fluent than Julian Castro. Otherwise, Tim Kaine is about as generic as white male politicians can get. The only other built-in advantage that Kaine has is the virtue of being from the critical general election swing-state of Virginia.

Notable Policy Positions

  • Kaine believes that U.S. foreign policy should focus on supporting declining democracies to stem the growing tide of fascism and authoritarianism. He also advocates for democracies using a coordinated approach to dealing with authoritarian government, similar to how NATO coordinated efforts against the Soviet Union.
  • Has voiced concern about illegal military actions and the growing scope of presidential power after Trump’s missile strikes on Syria, but sponsored legislation that would “update” the post-9/11 war authorization that would have provided proper authorization for the Syrian campaign. This proposal came under criticism that it would effectively be legalizing perpetual warfare. Kaine also supported the failed attempt in 2013 to pass an actual congressional authorization for the Syrian Civil War. Don’t mistake his arguments about war powers for an anti-war stance.
  • He “personally opposes” abortion on moral grounds but believes that the government does not have a role in restricting or prohibiting the practice.
  • Supports requiring police officers to wear body cameras, opposes the death penalty, acknowledges that racial biases do exist in the criminal justice system, and expresses concern about the overuse of incarceration. Supported the First Step Act criminal justice reform initiative. Opposes the legalization of marijuana.
  • Advocates for more tuition assistance programs and student loan interest rate cuts, but he has not personally supported efforts to create debt-free higher education options in any capacity outside of his role as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
  • Believes that the private sector should play a large role in combating climate change — that government is not always the answer.
  • Supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, advocates for pursuing more free trade deals that benefit the America’s economic interests.
  • Co-sponsored the “Medicare X” proposal that would phase-in an option to buy coverage through the Medicare program — essentially, it is a public option proposal that uses the existing Medicare infrastructure. This is Kaine’s moderated response to calls for “Medicare for All.”
  • Supports removing the payroll tax cap to improve the solvency of Social Security. Opposes raising the retirement age.

Path to Victory

Tim Kaine’s nomination strategy begins in Nevada, where he will be able to make a strong first impression as a bilingual candidate. Interesting to note: if either Julian Castro or Tim Kaine run it would be the first time that the Democratic Party has an English/Spanish bilingual candidate running for President. Castro’s potential candidacy presents a potential obstacle for Kaine, who will compete with Castro directly for the support of the party’s Spanish-speaking supporters. Kaine’s religious credentials as a member of the Catholic Church and experiences as a missionary in Honduras will also be part of his appeal; 52% of Catholics under the age of 30 are hispanic, and the church has become increasingly diverse over the last decade.

It seems unlikely that Kaine would break away from the pack with a crowded field in Iowa, but perhaps his “nice guy” persona will make him a good fit for the midwestern states. In 2004, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, the two early front-runners in Iowa, hammered each other with negative ads, which created a scenario where John Kerry effectively became the last man standing after struggling to gain traction. New Hampshire tends towards the northeastern liberal type of candidate; so one of Sanders (Vermont) or Warren (Massachusetts) seems like a more natural fit than Tim Kaine. In 2004, John Kerry (Massachusetts) won New Hampshire and Howard Dean (Vermont) came in second. The last time a VP candidate from a losing ticket ran for President in the subsequent election was Joe Lieberman in 2004; Lieberman skipped Iowa and focused on New Hampshire, where he walked away with a 5th place finish and 8% of the vote.

Will Clinton loyalists come out in support of Kaine? Or will they largely be split up between the multiple female candidates running for office? And what if Kaine does run; would Hillary endorse him and pass up someone who has a shot at “shattering the glass ceiling”? Ultimately, Tim Kaine feels like a “process of elimination” type of candidate. Similar to Mitt Romney in 2012, who had his share of the vote locked in while other candidates surged and imploded around him. This same approach played out in 2004 for John Kerry; despite the populist Howard Dean’s early success, his campaign had imploded by the time voting had started, then John Edwards won South Carolina but was unable to overcome Kerry’s status as the front-runner after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Similarly, Newt Gingrich was unable to parlay a South Carolina victory in 2012 into a successful campaign to defeat Romney. Kaine’s best hope is to parlay his bland stature into a source of consistency while other candidates flame out. A “slow and steady wins the race” type of a campaign, the “safe pick.”

Financially speaking, Kaine will be attractive to the establishment donors that supported Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 campaigns — although he may not exactly be anybody’s first choice (neither was Romney or Kerry). Mitt Romney’s well-funded Super PAC was colloquially known as “the death star.” If Kaine can match Romney’s fundraising prowess and play whack-a-mole by unleashing a deluge of attack ads on the candidate of the moment, he might be the last man/woman standing when the dust settles.

As far as the general election prospects go for Tim Kaine, the frequent comparisons to John Kerry and Mitt Romney don’t exactly bode well for his chances. He fits the mold of the type of candidate a party picks when defeat is likely against an incumbent President. The thing is, that ultimately might not matter much with Donald Trump’s record-breaking unpopularity. Perhaps Tim Kaine’s candidacy would symbolize a return to normalcy and familiarity that might be appealing after a turbulent four years. In the age of Trump, where up is down and truth is in the eye of the beholder, maybe boring is actually exciting in this bizarro world?

Kaine’s strategy would be to build upon Clinton’s victories while targeting states that she narrowly lost; Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida. Depending on the state of the race, Georgia could also be in play. This is the same map that unfolded in 2016 (sans the battleground of Ohio, where Clinton was handily defeated). However, Kaine must be careful not to repeat the same mistake that Hillary Clinton made — with Trump making gains in traditionally blue rust belt states, Clinton spent the waning days of her campaign chasing white whales like Arizona and Georgia while ignoring Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Those three states ultimately were Hillary Clinton’s downfall.

Trustee (Area 2) for the Woodland Joint Unified School District. Former Legislative Aide/Policy Analyst. Change is a process, not a conclusion.