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Hillary Clinton’s pitch: Tim Kaine will be the best white ally ever

Hillary Clinton Miami Rally
Kaine makes his debut in Miami.
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

To many on the left, Tim Kaine’s selection as the Democratic vice presidential nominee was disappointing more for who Kaine isn't than for who he is. Kaine beat out Julián Castro and Tom Perez, either one of whom would’ve been the first Hispanic person on a national ticket ever. He beat out his Senate colleague Cory Booker, who’d be the first black VP pick and only the second black politician on a major-party national ticket.

By picking Kaine, the grievance goes, Clinton chose to try to reassure white voters at the expense of better representing the multiracial coalition behind the Democratic Party.

Judging by Kaine’s debut as running mate in Miami on Saturday, the Clinton campaign is keenly aware of this critique and eager to answer it. Kaine’s speech seemed tailor-made to try to persuade the Democratic base that this white dude from a purple state with a fairly centrist track record is nonetheless an ally, nonetheless gets it.

Naturally, Kaine gave much of the speech in Spanish, telling the crowd that during the year he spent living in Honduras ("Hay hondureños aquí?" — Are there any Hondurans here? — he asked at one point), "Aprendí los valores de mi pueblo: fe, familia, y trabajo"; "I learned the values of my people: faith, family, and work." And alternating between Spanish and English, he repeatedly and forcefully pledged that he and Clinton would push for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, in the first 100 days of their administration.

"Raise your hand if you’re a naturalized citizen," he said and, as hands shot up, added, "Thank you for choosing us!"

By all accounts this is an issue that Kaine really does genuinely, deeply care about, in part because of his personal connection to Latin America; he was the first senator to deliver a full speech in Spanish, doing so by way of endorsing the 2013 immigration reform effort.

But in the wake of Castro and Perez’s elimination from the veepstakes, having Kaine spend much of his first remarks as VP pick specifically speaking to Latino voters and trying to convince them of his and Clinton’s sincerity on immigration felt like a conscious attempt to show that he’s the best white dude ally Latinos could dream of — that he may not increase descriptive representation for Latinos but that he intuitively and deeply understands their substantive concerns. He gets it.

Tim Kaine, Southern integrationist

A surprising amount of the speech also dwelled on racial equality — and Kaine and his family’s record of fighting for it in Richmond, Virginia, the formal capital of the Confederacy. Kaine hailed his father-in-law, Linwood Holton, the governor of Virginia from 1970 to 1974 and the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, for insisting upon school integration after more than a decade of massive resistance from Virginia’s Democratic white supremacist establishment.

Holton not only fought for integration as a policy but enrolled his children (including Anne, Kaine’s future wife) in predominantly black Richmond public schools.

"We sent our kids to those same public schools that her father had opened up to everybody, including one school that I helped build when I was mayor that our school board named the Linwood Holton Elementary School," Kaine recalled. "How cool was it see our three kids head out the door with their backpacks on to walk to a neighborhood school named after their civil rights hero grandfather?"

From there, Kaine pivoted to talking about his record as a civil right lawyer fighting housing discrimination based on race and disability status. "In 1998, I won a historic verdict against a national insurance company because they had been redlining minority neighborhoods, treating them unfairly in the issuance of homeowner's insurance," he told the crowd. "At the time I won that case, it was the biggest jury verdict ever in a civil rights case in American history."

It’s true: Kaine got a verdict of $100.5 million in that case, and while after appeals it was settled at $17.5 million, Kaine is not bullshitting at all when he describes his law practice as centered on fighting discrimination.

All of this not only contributes to the Clinton campaign’s efforts to depict Kaine as a selfless, hard-working fighter against injustice but also sends a powerful message to black voters. Kaine is not one of those liberals who posts #BlackLivesMatter statuses on Facebook but won’t send his kids to black schools. He’s not someone who recommends Ta-Nehisi Coates books but crosses the street when he sees a black kid in a hoodie. He is an active, committed anti-racist who dedicated his career to fighting the remnants of Jim Crow in one of its historical centers.

The branch of the party Clinton wants to cater to

Of course, there are other wings of the Democratic Party disappointed with the Kaine pick, largely because of his enthusiastic past support for free trade and his support for loosening certain bank regulations.

So when former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm tried to somewhat awkwardly vouch for Kaine’s "wokeness" on racial justice:

She was bombarded with replies attacking Kaine’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his perceived closeness to Wall Street, his squishy past record on abortion, and so on:

To the kind of leftists who backed Sanders in the primary, Kaine is their critique of mainstream Democrats in miniature: insufficiently focused on economic inequality and distributional issues, and using concern for racial equality as a distraction from that. That he’s been late to the game in enthusiastically supporting abortion rights complicates this a bit (the archetypical "woke" liberal these leftists loathe would have a blemish-free record on the issue) but only adds to the potential coalition opposing him.

If Clinton had felt this wing of the party were worth pitching toward, she might have had Kaine given an enthusiastically populist speech in spite of his past record. Hell, she might have just picked Elizabeth Warren instead. The fact that Kaine instead delivered a pitch aimed at Latino groups and civil rights groups says something about what wing of the party Clinton wants to shore up support with.

She fundamentally, and probably correctly, thinks that Latino and black voters are a vastly more important part of the party than the economic populist left, and so she sought to have Kaine assuage any disappointment the former might feel, rather than the latter.

This gets at something that political scientists Matthew Grossmann and David Hopkins have been arguing for a while now: While Republicans are an essentially ideological party, Democrats are a coalitional party, bound together less by ideological orthodoxy than by the interests that labor, Latinos, African Americans, urban dwellers of all races, and other parts of the Democratic coalition share. Clinton understands this, and the natural implication is that demonstrating a commitment to black and Latino voters is more important than tacking left on economic issues.

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