A presidential running mate mostly is a warm body. He or she makes appearances at rallies and fundraisers, allowing the candidate to appear at different rallies and fundraisers. Tim Kaine can certainly do that. He is said to be a solid campaigner. He can give a speech and, presumably, shake a donor’s hand. He doesn’t make gaffes.
Unlike most presidential nominees, though, Hillary Clinton already had someone able to fill that role—warm body who can campaign where the candidate isn’t—well before she locked up the nomination: her husband, the former president, whose own campaigning abilities are generally considered to be a cut above “solid.”
With that position securely filled, then, Clinton had an opportunity, in selecting a running mate, to pick someone exciting, and to give some lucky Democrat a huge national profile overnight. Since the party has lately failed to produce many young stars (it’s hard when the party keeps losing Senate and gubernatorial races), this seems like an opportunity she should have seized on. Instead, Hillary Clinton chose a throwback. She chose a man whose primary qualification is that he was vetted in 2008 and seemed fine.
This isn’t a review of Tim Kaine’s performance in last night’s vice-presidential debate—it was fine, honestly, and that event was meaningless anyway. This is a review of him.
Tim Kaine is a test-tube candidate designed by party scientists to win a reddish state election in a Bush-era midterm. He has no utility in 2016, let alone 2020 or 2024. He holds no particular appeal to the younger and more racially diverse portions of the Obama coalition, and the sorts of moderate whites he is theoretically supposed to appeal to certainly didn’t need his reassuring presence to decide to jump on the Clinton bandwagon in a year in which she’s running against Donald J. Trump. Clinton didn’t need an inoffensive white to win Virginia. Nothing about Kaine would sway a Sanders voter, let alone a Stein or even Johnson voter.
In a year in which Clinton already nearly lost to a socialist, beloved by the kids, who hammered her, quite effectively, for her ties to plutocrats and wealthy rentiers and who campaigned in part on a promise to make college free, Clinton went with the guy who petitioned the Obama administration on behalf of fucking Sallie Mae.
So what is he for?
Tim Kaine is the answer to a question Democrats should have stopped asking eight years ago. He is a product of Hillary Clinton’s most irritating political instinct: her tendency to hold on to compromise positions, forged in a different political era, long past their expiration dates. Tim Kaine is civil unions. He is the human embodiment of Chelsea Clinton explaining that marijuana shouldn’t be legal because its interactions with prescription drugs haven’t been studied yet. Tim Kaine is the “rare” part of “safe, legal, and rare.” Tim Kaine is a replacement-level Democrat.
Barack Obama probably did have to pick an old white guy. Hillary Clinton didn’t, though! Picking a running mate based on electoral considerations—if that was the logic, though I don’t think even she can believe he’s worth more than, I don’t know, one point in Virginia—should be long-discredited, since most research shows vice-presidential nominees only have an impact on votes when they’re unpopular enough to damage campaigns. Picking a running mate ought to be about choosing a plausible successor, someone you can easily imagine being in a position to win the next election.
And Democrats will actually need to find someone with a large constituency and wide popular appeal sooner than they think. This has nothing to do with conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health; a look at the actuarial tables shows that Clinton shouldn’t have much trouble making it through two terms. But people do get sick. If something happens to President Clinton—or if she simply decides not to run for a second term, which isn’t completely inconceivable—does anyone, at all, in this entire country, really want President Tim Kaine?
Or, you know, maybe Clinton has two largely successful (or at least not disastrous) terms, and it’s time for the Democrats to attempt to win the White House for a fifth consecutive term, which no one has managed to do since Roosevelt and Truman. Now imagine Tim Kaine, a political time capsule buried in 2006, trying to win the nomination of a presumably even less white and even more progressive Democratic Party in 2024, selling 20-year-old ideas with 20-year-old messaging.
Maybe the right person wasn’t there. I wasn’t totally convinced Elizabeth Warren was the answer, both because it’d be giving up a Senate seat and because she’s only ever actually won one election; Tom Vilsack is a stalk of subsidized corn in a suit that is also made of subsidized corn; and Cory Booker is an actual scam artist. I did have a soft spot for Secretary of Labor (and friend of the former site) Thomas Perez, who was clearly in the top tier of potential running mates in terms of economic policy and not being a corporatist stooge, but I acknowledge that if we’re looking at the Labor secretary then the pool of talent is pretty shallow.
It’s also pointless to play at counterfactuals, when Hillary Clinton is not the person currently running for president most likely to eventually decide to shake things up by ditching his running mate weeks before the election and bringing in a wild card. (I still believe, Newt!) There’s nothing we can do about Tim Kaine and his big midwestern face and his genial platitudes and his careful air of inoffensiveness. If Clinton wins, there he’ll be, a constant reminder that Democrats can have nice things, but nothing more.