WASHINGTON ― Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential choice was her first true opportunity to alert the various constituencies that make up the Democratic Party of her governing agenda.
By choosing Tim Kaine, a senator from Virginia with an “Ah guys let’s be careful I don’t know” Democratic record, she appears to be betting that voters will cast their ballots in November in fear of a Donald Trump presidency rather than in favor of … whatever it is Clinton stands for at this point in her political career.
Progressives inside the Beltway got the message.
“This sends a signal to liberals that they don’t matter,” said one progressive Senate Democratic aide.
The Kaine pick dashed hopes in the party’s base that the new Clinton might more fully reflect a Democratic coalition that has become more populist and progressive since her husband occupied the White House in the 1990s. The move will have lasting consequences, according to House and Senate insiders. Clinton has undermined her own potential governing coalition, should she win the White House in November.
“This decision definitely impacts the relationship that progressives are going to have with a potential Clinton administration going forward,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesperson for Democracy for America, a progressive organization that rallied against a Kaine nomination.
The problem is not with Clinton’s electoral judgment. Over the past year, Donald Trump has gone from a birther who thinks vaccines cause autism to a Republican presidential candidate who spreads neo-Nazi propaganda on Twitter. By any reasonable standard of American politics, Clinton could be forgiven for believing that such maneuvers rendered the man unelectable.
But her Kaine selection has significant implications for what Clinton might actually accomplish during her presidency. Beltway progressives have already interpreted her veepstakes decision as a sign they should abandon all hope of furthering their policy preferences through an inside game of playing nice and negotiating with a future Clinton administration. They should, many key operatives believe, factionalize the party and confront Clinton when they find fault with her agenda.
Both DFA and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee issued statements disapproving of the Kaine selection, explicitly citing his support for TPP.
“She already starts with a trust deficit on these issues and she has just set herself back before she even takes office,” another Democratic Senate staffer told HuffPost.
The liberal reaction to her choice on Twitter was less than enthusiastic.
Leftists who have been critical of Clinton saw the pick as reinforcing their reasons for skepticism.
Clinton’s treatment of Elizabeth Warren illustrates just how poorly the presumptive Democratic nominee has analyzed her progressive supporters. Warren has a confrontational streak and a knack for building coalitions. When she cried foul over a Wall Street subsidy embedded in a last-minute funding bill, the government almost shut down. She went hard at President Barack Obama over corporate favors included in his Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bill. Notably, TPP still hasn’t passed Congress, and Hillary Clinton herself now opposes it.
Warren didn’t do any of that in the 2016 process. She didn’t challenge Clinton for the nomination and she didn’t endorse Bernie Sanders. She operated as Clinton’s Twitter bulldog against Donald Trump, getting under his skin in a way that Clinton never managed to do. Warren sent every signal she could that she wanted to be part of the team.
Clinton didn’t have to pick Warren as her vice president to signal progressives would be taken seriously during her presidency. Warren has a big following, and plenty of presidents have been wary of being overshadowed by their subordinates. But if Clinton had picked Labor Secretary Tom Perez or Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) or Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), it would have been a public nod to the progressive wing of the party: I get it, I’m listening. She didn’t do that.
“Kaine is Clinton’s first major hiring decision, and it shows she’s not looking to shake things up and seems to think Washington is working just fine,” said another Democratic staffer.
When he ran for governor of Virginia in 2005, Kaine couldn’t win the endorsement of the abortion-rights group NARAL, even though he was running against a southern anti-abortion Republican. NARAL explained its decision by noting that Kaine “embraces many of the restrictions on a woman’s right to choose” that his GOP opponent did.
Since being elected to the Senate, however, Kaine has voted with abortion rights groups, insisting that his opposition to abortion is merely “personal.” And Kaine was largely a humdrum, go-with-the-flow Democrat until the 2014 elections. In that cycle, fellow Virginia Democrat Mark Warner narrowly avoided an upset in a race Beltway prognosticators believed he would carry in a cakewalk.
Kaine’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But Democratic Senate staffers say Kaine took a pronounced turn after Warner’s near-defeat, interpreting his colleague’s distress as a sign that Virginia voters wanted to see candidates more closely aligned with Republicans. In doing so, Kaine did not revert to his anti-abortion roots. He went pro-corporate. He expressed this newfound centrism by serving as one of the top Senate supporters of TPP, and by backing a series of measures designed to deregulate banking and environmental standards.
Financial reform advocates were particularly incensed by Kaine’s move in January 2015 to sign off on a bill that would have effectively made new banking and environmental laws impossible to implement. In the name of “cost-benefit analysis,” the bill would have tied up regulators with endless red tape, hamstringing the 2010 Dodd-Frank bank reform law, and just about anything else that regulators wanted to try in the future.
“This would create dozens of new requirements that are nearly impossible to carry out,” Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, told HuffPost in January 2015.
In the week before Clinton named her official VP pick, Kaine was still poking his progressive Senate colleagues in the eye. He refused to sign off on a letter organized by Merkley and Brown calling for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to toughen up on payday lenders. He signed a letter calling for big regional banks ― including firms with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets ― to get lighter treatment on calculating their liquidity, also known as the risk that a bank might run out of money. The same week, he also called for “community banks” and credit unions to be exempted from consumer protection rules. Because households are totally fine with getting ripped off so long as their money goes to a firm with $10 billion or less in assets.
Plenty of Democrats do this sort of thing. But Kaine isn’t even on the Senate Banking Committee. There was no pressing policy reason for him to do anything on finance this week. His deregulatory work in the middle of the veepstakes was widely interpreted inside the Beltway as a signal to Clinton ― “Pick me! I’m not like all of those silly Elizabeth Warren people!”
She and Kaine can probably win. Trump is deeply unpopular. But they’ll have to do something come January. In October, Clinton told a debate audience that she was a progressive, but “a progressive who likes to get things done.” The Kaine pick presents reasons to doubt both of those claims.
This article has been updated to describe Roqayah Chamseddine as a leftist, rather than a liberal.