POLITICS

Kaine Spurs Curiosity (And Groans) Among Progressives

08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tim Kaine - once considered the third most likely Virginian to be a Democratic VP contender - has now apparently ascended onto Barack Obama's short list. The Virginia governor, in the midst of his first term, brings natural appeal to the ticket. Both he and Obama are youthful graduates of Harvard Law School who have lived abroad and espouse a definitively 'new-politics' type ethos. And Kaine's geographic pull could prove pivotal in securing the White House.

But the downsides of his selection were also quickly made evident. After news of Kaine's VP prospects became public, the reaction from Obama backers on the web was a mix of curiosity and disappointment.

American Prospect writer Ezra Klein noted that a key qualification for Kaine was "his actual record in Virginia, which folks seem to suggest is pretty good, but which I know relatively little about." Others were less kind. Choosing Kaine would "signal that Obama has no intention to govern as a progressive," wrote Chris Bowers on OpenLeft.com. "As such, it would be difficult to muster up enthusiasm to work for the ticket." Mellisa McEwan of Shakesville described herself as "decidedly unthrilled."

Foreign policy issues, perhaps surprisingly, may be the least problematic. Kaine was not in Congress when the Iraq war was launched and his office says that he opposed the justifications for the invasion. Since then, moreover, the governor has been an outspoken critic of the way the Bush administration has handled the National Guard and has personally visited troops in the field.

But even his staffers fess up to the fact that he needs to flesh out his positions.

"I don't know that he has ever commented on that on the record," said Delacey Skinner, the governor's communications director, when asked for Kaine's take on the surge. "He felt that there was a clear point in time earlier in the war when Rumsfeld shut down what was being recommended to him in terms of troop levels. Obviously when you have more troops on the ground they are going to be in better control of what is going on." As for now: "he does support Senator Obama's plan to get out."

While a short resume on international affairs doesn't help Obama, it is the view progressives hold of Kaine's domestic agenda that could be more of a irritant. Even before news of a possible VP choice broke, environmentalists were expressing chagrin over Kaine's records; specifically his backing of a Dominion coal plant in Wise County and his support for partially lifting the federal moratorium on offshore drilling.

Objections were raised about Kaine's pro-life policies as well. As governor, Kaine supported a ban on partial-birth abortion and once said that his overarching position on the matter was in line with President Bush, a stance to which female voters aren't likely to warm.

"I can't think of a better way to further alienate female voters who are sitting on the fence than to pick someone who isn't at least as women's issues-friendly as Obama himself," opined a columnist on Daily Kos.

For others, however, it wasn't simply that Kaine has moral qualms with abortion - he cites his Catholic faith as the backbone of his opposition to the death penalty and stem cell research as well. It is that, in office, he hasn't proven principled in these stances. Citing the preeminence of state law, Kaine has signed off on several executions. In one memorable moment, a death row inmate asked his guards to "tell the governor he just lost my vote" on the eve of his lethal injection.

"He is non progressive on these issues," said Ben Tribbet, who writes about Virginia politics for the website, Not Larry Sabato. "A lot of people think he is hollow. When he ran as a pro-life candidate but would not change abortion law.... Then he says I'm also against the death penalty but then when people support it he says he will sign death warrants. Then on stem cell research he says I'm pro-life. He will execute people despite his moral objections but he won't allow stem cell research? He just won't take a principled stand..."

There are, it should be noted, deeply personal dynamics to each of these issues that help explain Kaine's positions. During his pre-politics career, he represented death row inmates as an attorney. And as governor he commuted sentences including that of a triple murderer who was deemed too mentally impaired to comprehend he was about to die.

"He has talked about himself as a good government results oriented person," said Skinner when asked to label her boss' ideological leanings. "If you go out there and look at blogs and what people have said about him you will find people who say he is too conservative and too liberal, who say he is a centrist. What I would say is that his first question is: 'is this the right policy?'"

An illustrative example of this philosophical maxim, Kaine proponents say, is his policy on gun ownership. While Kaine ran on as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, after the brutal school shooting at Virginia Tech he came out in favor of more restrictions on gun show sales and concealed weapons. The incident is often cited as emblematic of effective executive leadership. The governor immediately upended an overseas trip, traveled back to the Blacksburg campus and delivered a widely praised speech at the school's convocation. Later that week, on a popular evangelical show "Hour of Power," Kaine was interrupted by Rev. Robert Schuller:

"Governor," the Reverend said, "I want to tell you that I am a specialist in sensing and seeing Christ coming through personalities and lives and voices, and I see Him in your eyes..."

And yet, courage under crisis and the ability to appeal to divergent communities may not be enough for Kaine to placate progressive concerns. And political observers are skeptical that Kaine would drastically expand Obama's Virginia reach. While the governor currently has an approval rating of 57% according to an April 2008 Survey USA poll, his candidacy did not play particularly well in Appalachia.

As such, several observers wondered aloud to the Huffington Post whether the floating of Kaine's name was done as a smokescreen: an attempt to test the waters for a running mate that might not, in reality, be so high on the list. But despite the skepticism and the progressive concerns, there seems to be an emerging consensus that Kaine is well regarded within the Obama circle. And, in the end, a shared ethos, a fond relationship, and the potential for traction in Virginia may prove too much for the presumptive Democratic candidate to ignore.

"Obama has realized that a modern Vice President practically lives with the Chief Executive, especially in times of crisis," wrote Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia who has followed Kaine's career since 1994. And Obama "wants someone he can trust completely."

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