The Center Won’t Hold
Hillary Clinton's selection of Tim Kaine shows how out of touch Democrats are from the country's populist political mood.
Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as running mate — announced late Friday evening — has been widely praised as a brilliant choice by media elites. They say that Kaine is a “serious lawmaker,” a “sunny” politician who puts Donald Trump’s dark vision of and for the nation in stark relief, and a dedicated public servant with swing-state appeal.
Despite howls of discontent from the Left, they’ve assured us that Kaine is a “progressive fighter.” Perhaps the Daily Beast most succinctly captured the media’s ecstatic reaction: “Holy Crap, Tim Kaine Just Killed It.”
Anyone who’s paid attention to Virginia politics was not be surprised by Kaine’s reception: he has spent years building a reputation as a genial politician dedicated to evidence-based, centrist public policy. And by all accounts, he’s a decent man, sincerely committed to Democratic Party politics.
But we should not let policy get lost in personality. Despite all the media’s claims that Kaine is a “progressive who gets things done,” there’s no ambiguity about his politics: Kaine represents the smiling, competent face of liberalism.
A Conservative Career
Kaine rose to power in Virginia when the state was considered a conservative stronghold, and his politics reflect the state’s reputation.
In his 2005 gubernatorial campaign, Kaine played up his social conservatism by supporting the death penalty (despite being personally against it) and opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights. He signed a partial birth abortion ban into law and helped pass a parental consent requirement that made it harder for young women to get abortions.
Like many Democrats, Kaine has since “evolved” and now backs same-sex marriage. But he’s still fairly moderate on abortion. When it was announced that the Democratic platform called for the Hyde Amendment’s repeal, Kaine said he would “check it out” because he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde Amendment.” He also makes a point of publicly mentioning that, as a Catholic, he personally objects to abortion.
Kaine matched his social conservatism with fiscal conservatism. He has publicly stated that he “strongly supports” the state’s right-to-work law — virulently anti-labor legislation that makes it almost impossible to form a union. In line with his self-described fiscal conservatism, Kaine has fought for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and against bank regulation.
Given Kaine’s stance on TPP, picking him as VP signals that the Clinton administration will make superficial changes to the TPP before pushing it through Congress — both Clinton and Kaine always carefully qualify their new-found opposition to the free-trade agreement by saying that they can’t support it “in its current form.”
Kaine’s record on criminal justice is similarly conservative. Kaine supported “tough-on-crime” policies — including Project Exile, which turned illegal firearm possession into a federal offense — while mayor of Richmond from 1998 to 2001. Project Exile’s goal was to reduce crime by giving long prison sentences at federal penitentiaries to people convicted on gun charges. Criminal justice activists maintain that the policy targeted black communities and helped explode the United States’s prison population.
But one of Kaine’s most worrying positions may be his support for the fossil-fuel industry. Kaine continues to push fracking, and he doesn’t oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 550-mile natural gas pipeline that would transport dangerous fossil fuels right through the heart of Virginia. Seemingly unaware of the dire climate change reports that keep appearing, Kaine argues that an all-of-the-above energy policy — including drilling off the coast of Virginia — is the best path forward.
Democrats will counter that Kaine’s conservative record reflects his Virginia constituency. There is certainly some truth to the claim, but it doesn’t make Clinton’s selection of Kaine any more reassuring.
Kaine is a centrist politician; a fundraiser who brought in millions of dollars in corporate cash as head of the DNC; someone who has avoided populist politics throughout his career. Kaine’s conservativism would have prevented him from surviving the primary had he run.
But more importantly, the choice amplifies every uncertainty that the Left has about Clinton and reveals her opinion of the Democratic Party’s left.
A Pivot to the Right
Kaine’s selection helps confirm what left-liberals have feared ever since the Bernie Sanders campaign effectively ended — namely, that Clinton’s rhetorical embrace of progressive causes won’t last past the convention. Rather than increasing enthusiasm among the Democratic Party’s base by making economic populism, environmental justice, and criminal justice reform the heart of her campaign, the Clinton team will try to expand its coalition by appealing to independents and moderate Republicans — particularly business-minded donors — who are wary of Trump’s bombast.
From the convention onwards, we can expect Clinton to focus less and less on specific issues. Instead, her campaign will pivot to a general election strategy that highlights vague personal attributes that make her uniquely qualified to pass legislation and to lead effectively. Kaine fits perfectly: he’s a genial, centrist leader whose dramatic personal contrast to Trump will inspire confidence and attract moderate voters.
What, then, of the millions of young people and working-class voters who propelled the Sanders campaign? Clinton’s VP pick makes it clear that she will rely on left-wing voters’ fear of a Trump presidency to get them to turn out in November, assuming that the progressives and Sanders supporters who make up the Democratic Party’s activist core are more concerned about Trump’s authoritarian white identity politics than her tepid liberalism. At best she’ll offer the left wing occasional rhetorical concessions that will never translate into actual policy.
This could very well be a successful strategy. The less Clinton’s campaign mentions specific policies, the more easily voters can project their own policy preferences onto her.
One can already see the strategy unfolding: Kaine’s announcement was followed by Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement; on the campaign trail and Twitter, Clinton has highlighted prominent Republicans criticizing Trump; her most recent television spots emphasize her opponent’s corrosive personality rather than broader issues like institutional racism or economic inequality.
While there’s a clear logic to picking Kaine and pivoting to the center, the strategy comes with significant risks. It might win Clinton the White House this year, but it will allow right-wing populists to be the only anti-establishment voices on offer to voters.
The radical far-right movement Trump represents didn’t begin — and won’t end — with him. Combine this with the fact that even establishment figures like Lawrence Summers warn that another recession may come within the next five years. At a time when elites are under attack across the globe, Clinton has bet that 2016’s chaos is a temporary diversion that will dissipate if elites can maintain control and steady the ship.
Chances are, however, that she’s wrong. And the Democrats have embraced technocratic centrism at the very moment support for that brand of politics is collapsing.