Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate is the least surprising political thing that has happened all year long. He was the widely recognized front runner from the moment people starting talking about who her pick was likely to be, and that never changed in all the speculation up to the last day. He was one of her earliest supporters; he has very similar stands on issues and approach to governance; he is her close friend; he is very highly regarded by his colleagues in the Senate, and was Obama’s first DNC Chair; he was the favorite candidate of the Clintons’ closest friend and adviser, VA Governor Terry MacAuliffe, and from what we hear, of Bill Clinton as well. He comes from a critical swing state, has great experience in government and a compelling personal story. In a year full of big political surprises, this most predictable of choices was what most political observers expected to happen. This was a comfortable choice for a candidate who isn’t excited about taking big risks.
Here’s another thing that was entirely predictable: most progressive movement people are disappointed by the choice. Let’s not sugarcoat it. Exhausted by a tough, divisive primary, we were hoping that Hillary would appoint someone we could enthusiastically and immediately embrace as someone who could help unify the Sanders/Warren wing of the party with Hillary and her campaign. Tom Perez would have ignited the passion of the Latino community with a historic first ever choice, and thrilled the labor movement and other progressives who have loved working with him as Labor Secretary. Picking Sherrod Brown would have sent the clearest signal yet that Hillary really has moved our way on the trade issue and on economic populism in general. And choosing progressive hero Elizabeth Warren would have sent an lightning bolt of energy through the progressive movement, delivering the ultimate signal to our wing of the party that our voices are being heard and that Hillary is moving in our direction. I was a strong advocate for a choice like that, as I believe that unifying the party and creating more enthusiasm with the base is vital to Hillary’s winning this campaign, and so I’m disappointed.
But before I talk about the big questions this pick raises, I want to take a moment to say that I’m also cognizant of how far progressives have come. Think about the irony of someone like Tim Kaine being seen as the most establishment conservative choice. He started his career as a civil rights lawyer in an era where that was a very unpopular thing to do. He is quite likely the most progressive statewide office holder Virginia has ever had, certainly far better than Virginia’s other senator Mark Warner. He has for many years been strongly anti-death penalty, pro-immigration, pro-gun safety legislation, and pro-LGBT rights in Virginia, which is a tough thing to be. He was one of the leading voices in the Senate for the Iran deal which Obama negotiated. He has great voting scores with labor, choice groups, enviro groups, civil rights groups. It is a sign of how much the Democratic party is moving progressives’ way that someone like Tim Kaine is thought of as the most moderate pick Hillary could have made.
Back to my main point: no surprises, either in this pick or in the disappointed reaction to it by progressives. What the Kaine selection does do, though, is to raise two very big questions forward.
The first one is about the rest of the campaign. With this choice leaving progressives uninspired, what is the campaign going to do to close the enthusiasm gap? How are we going to inspire volunteers, online contributors, and social media activity? How are we going to get people excited about talking up Hillary to their friends and defending her from attacks? How are we going to create enough excitement to get people out to vote in the numbers needed to defeat Trump? Having made this decision, the campaign needs to be sitting down ASAP to come up with a serious strategy to inspire and organize progressives to get involved in the campaign and in getting out the vote. It’s going to take a lot of resources, a smart political strategy about outreach and activation, and a progressive message about issues that really matter to people. This is a very big deal: Mark my words, we will not win this campaign without the kind of enthusiasm I am talking about here. We are in a deep hole in terms of inspiration and excitement, and the campaign and progressive movement need to be very focused on how to get out of that hole.
The second question is about governance, assuming (hoping fervently) that Hillary beats the Donald. Let’s go back for a moment to an alternative scenario. Let’s assume for the moment that Hillary had picked Elizabeth Warren, choosing the person in government most effective at instantly inspiring and mobilizing progressives to stand up to Obama on appointments or legislation that were too pro-Wall Street. If she were Hillary’s new VP, she would be the single most effective ambassador to the progressive community on decisions made by Hillary; now, she will continue to be completely independent, making her own judgments about when to light a fire against Hillary’s appointments and some of her policies. Same with Sherrod Brown: with him on the inside, he would have enough influence on trade deals and other economic policies, and enough credibility with those of us who are skeptics on establishment economic policy, that Hillary’s administration would be able to more easily bring along the labor movement and others to work with the administration on trade deals everyone could live with. Now, if there’s a trade deal that looks in any way pro-corporate, there’s no doubt at all that it will be viewed more suspiciously. Hillary could have forged a strong alliance with the progressive movement with her VP pick in terms of governance. The big question now: does she try to govern in full partnership with progressives or in a more antagonistic relationship with our movement? I hope it’s the former, but we won’t know until we get there- if we get there. The Kaine pick certainly doesn’t preclude a close working relationship between the Clinton administration and progressives, but it doesn’t guarantee it either.
Look, the bottom line is that regardless of how progressives feel about this pick, there is no more urgent and important political job in the world than beating Donald Trump. He sounds and struts more like Mussolini every day. He would threaten the very fabric and nature of our democracy. We have to beat him. So to my progressive friends who are upset by this choice, I get it and have some sympathy, but I also want to be blunt. This isn’t about us, and she didn’t do it to insult us, as some people have been saying online. Hillary made the pick she was most comfortable with, so be it. It means there are big challenges and big questions ahead. Fine. Let’s move forward, figure out how to beat this lunatic fascist we are running against, and live to keep organizing another day.