Hillary Clinton’s running mate will be Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who is exactly the person it seemed she would choose a month ago (or a year ago or, really, four years ago). It’s all part of the thrilling trend of the Democratic race unfolding in a very predictable way, even amidst all the insanity of 2016.
Unlike Donald Trump, who had major work to do in terms of unifying the Republican Party and has dozens of obvious political weaknesses to shore up, the political stakes for Clinton’s pick were relatively low. She has the Democratic establishment all locked up and has for years. And while she certainly has her weaknesses as a candidate, they’re not really amenable to being fixed through a vice presidential selection.
But the substantive stakes in the veepstakes are always high, for two simple reasons: modern vice presidents generally play a substantive role in presidential administrations, and it’s not all that rare for the vice president to end up becoming the president some day.
So while some find both Kaine and the Kaine pick boring, I see a consequential moment in American history that deserves to be treated seriously.
And so, without further ado, here’s who won and who lost in Hillary’s VP pick:
Winner: Tim Kaine
This is an obvious one, but it’s true. Hillary Clinton will probably win the election, which means Tim Kaine will probably be vice president.
That means he would become president in the event of a tragedy or political meltdown. He’s also young enough that he’d be the strong favorite to be the Democrats’ nominee in 2024 in the event that Clinton is reelected in 2020. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to imagine the Democrats winning five presidential elections in a row. But stranger things have happened.
The Republican Party, for example, recently nominated Donald Trump for the presidency.
At the end of the day, if you’re a senator from the centrist wing of your party representing a swing state, being selected as the number two on a ticket that’s favored to win is about the best thing that can happen to you in politics. And it did!
Winner: People who care about housing discrimination
Before Tim Kaine was a senator or a governor or a lieutenant governor or a mayor, he was a lawyer. A lawyer whose very first case was a pro bono assignment representing an African-American woman who’d been turned away from an apartment. The landlord told her it had already been claimed when she stopped by and said she wanted to look at it. She was suspicious and had a colleague call back later that day, and the landlord said it was still available.
Kaine won the case and began specializing in fair-housing issues as a lawyer.
By a weird coincidence, the very first time Donald Trump was quoted in the New York Times it was because of a Justice Department lawsuit accusing him and his father of discriminating against black renters (the Trumps settled, though without admitting guilt).
Kaine retained his interest in the subject as he entered politics, winning a $100 million jury verdict against Nationwide for discriminatory lending practices as mayor of Richmond. In the Senate, he’s continued to champion fair-housing issues even though it's an issue that doesn't exactly have a ton of appeal to swing voters or well-connected lobbyists.
With Kaine as vice president in the Clinton administration, people worried about housing discrimination will always have an open lane to the president.
Earlier this week, Republicans and some moderate Democratic senators were working on a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau arguing that almost all banks should be exempt from CFPB rules. The senators want to keep the six biggest banks in America under the regulatory umbrella, but exempt everyone else — including plenty of banks that are plenty big.
Kaine has the overall political profile of the kind of senator who would sign the letter.
But he was also actively under consideration for VP, and signing the letter would clearly annoy progressive activists in general and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in particular. If he’d wanted to, he could have told the bank lobbyists that he was with them on some level, but that the timing was just really bad for him so he couldn’t sign the letter. They probably would have understood what he was saying.
But instead, Kaine just went ahead and signed the letter, and as expected was strongly criticized for it by the left. And then Hillary went and picked him anyway.
That doesn’t mean banks will win every regulatory battle — or even this particular one — under a Clinton presidency. But it does show that Clinton is not a die-hard bank basher, as either a matter of personal conviction or of political expediency.
Winner: Moderate Democrats
Kaine’s conservatism shouldn’t be overstated. American politics is very polarized these days, and Kaine is a solid Democrat with fairly solid progressive credentials. But he is from the rightward half of the Democratic Senate caucus.
He ran and won several statewide races in an era when Virginia was more conservative than it is today. And he largely did it the old-fashioned way, by distinctly positioning himself as less liberal than the national Democratic Party. To this day, boring centrism remains the only battle-tested way for Democrats to win statewide races in conservative states — just ask Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), or Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The geography of both the Senate and the House makes it inevitable that the median House district and the median state are both more conservative than the nation as a whole. Which implies that to win majorities in Congress, Democrats will need to recruit and support candidates who are more conservative than their presidential nominee or congressional leaders.
For years now, all of the energy in the party has been on the left. Kaine’s elevation suggests a possible shift in momentum and prestige back to the centrist wing. And in part because progressive activists have generally moved the party’s center of gravity to the left, a wider range of positions — a $12 an hour minimum wage, for example — now count as relatively moderate. The swinging of the pendulum that Kaine represents could be the yin to Bernie Sanders’s yang, and ultimately lead to a much more robust Democratic Party.
Loser: Donald Trump
The big knocks on Tim Kaine are:
- He’s boring.
- He’s not left-wing enough.
Now imagine you’re someone who generally doesn’t vote for Democrats because your political views are fairly conservative, but you’re also a little worried that the GOP just nominated some kind of deranged madman. Then you hear that Hillary Clinton is being criticized by her base for picking a VP who’s not left-wing enough and is also totally boring.
That doesn’t sound so bad!
Check out this attack on Kaine the Republican National Committee mailed out — it’s practically begging wavering Republicans to vote for Clinton/Kaine over Trump/Pence:
Plus did I mention that Kaine got his start as a lawyer suing landlords for illegal housing discrimination, while Trump got his start as a media figure by being a landlord who got sued for illegal housing discrimination? There’s a certain poetry to that.
Loser: Joni Ernst
The freshman Iowa senator was elected in the massive GOP wave in 2014, and she’s a generally solid politician who’s perceived as a rising star in the party. Far and away her greatest point of vulnerability will be her 2020 reelection battle, as she’ll still be a relatively junior senator and will be running in a high-turnout presidential election year.
And since former Iowa governor and current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack isn’t going to be vice president now, and presumably doesn’t want to be the agriculture secretary until the end of time, he now has nothing better to do than run against Ernst. She’d still have an excellent chance of winning, but Vilsack is just about the best candidate Democrats could recruit to run against her, and at just about the weakest point she’s likely to face in her career.
Loser: The left
Progressive activists have been enjoying a rising tide of intra-party political power ever since the 2014 midterms.
President Obama shifted into YOLO mode and started issuing increasingly ambitious executive orders, Democrats threw caution to the wind and re-embraced gun control as an issue, Clinton broke with Obama to the left on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a disheveled democratic socialist mounted a shockingly strong primary campaign, and liberal hero Elizabeth Warren made it clear she’s the only Democratic senator anyone cares about.
It even looked for a brief, shining moment like they might be able to install Warren as the vice president.
But nope! You get boring, centrist Tim Kaine!
What are you going to do — vote for Donald Trump?