Hillary Clinton’s choice of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate tells us something important: the soon-to-be Democratic nominee is very confident she is going to win the presidential race. Throughout the primary season, pundits and politicians have focused on a potential threat to her chances: will progressives come out for her? Can she win over Bernie Sanders supporters and minority voters, and get them out to vote? Selecting Kaine does nothing to help her do either.
Outside the (albeit important) commonwealth of Virginia, Kaine doesn’t expand Hillary’s appeal very much. Yes, he speaks Spanish, which may or may not be meaningful to Hispanic voters. But it’s not as meaningful as putting Julian Castro on the ticket. Yes, he is a religious man who personally opposes abortion, but as Liz Mair pointed out on these pages, he’s not likely to pull many crossover conservative voters.
Kaine, a supporter of open trade and more or less conventional capitalism, is not likely to light a fire under Sanders’ Occupy Wall Street crowd. This is something Elizabeth Warren could have done, with the added bonus of a historic two-woman ticket. Kaine also has no special appeal to black voters, a key component of the Obama coalition Clinton is desperate to hold together. Clearly, Cory Booker would have given her more traction with that key demographic.
In the end, Clinton opted against scoring the easy points any of the potential VP picks on Kaine’s left would have given her. It is hard not to conclude that the Clinton camp believes they don’t need those points. It appears they see Donald Trump’s chances of winning as dim, and rejected a big splash running mate. But even if Clinton thinks the election is in the bag, why not take the insurance a more popular pick might have provided?
The Three-Headed Monster
Clinton might have chosen Kaine because his selection is less about next November and more about next January. In 1993, when Bill Clinton took office he gave Hillary responsibility, among other things, for reforming health care. No first lady before or since has ever played as important a role in White House politics. This was the cause of no little tension with then-Vice President Al Gore.
In her book “For Love and Politics –Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years,” Sally Bedell Smith paints a complicated picture of this unstable triumvirate:
Gore was the one most affected by Bill’s reliance on his wife. It was a given in the White House, as Chief of Staff Mack McLarty said, that everyone would ‘just have to get used to’ the fact that Hillary, along with Bill and Gore, had to ‘sign off on big decisions.’ But having what Clinton domestic-policy adviser Bruce Reed called ‘three forces to be reckoned with’ added yet another layer of perplexity and rivalry to the West Wing, where advisers and Cabinet officers knew they could lobby either the First Lady or the vice president to reverse decisions by the president. David Gergen, counselor to the president in 1993 and 1994, called the ‘three-headed system’ a ‘rolling disaster.’
Should Hillary Clinton win the presidency, the conditions for another such “rolling disaster” will be in place. She has already told voters Bill Clinton will play a major role in economic policy. Once again, as in 1993, our president would not so much be a Clinton as the Clintons. That is a fraught and dangerous situation for an incoming vice president. A Kaine, who gets along and can play ball with the first husband, could go a long way in avoiding the pitfalls of Bill Clinton’s first year as president.
Bill Clinton Is Still a Neo-Liberal
One of the most telling and fascinating moments of the Democratic primary was a 40-minute debate Bill Clinton held with a young Sanders supporter in a diner. As advisers tried to pry Bubba away, he engaged in a passionate defense of his economic, social justice, and criminal reform policies as president. Hillary Clinton has walked a fine line in criticizing aspects of her husband’s (and partly her) administration. But Bill is not walking back welfare reform; he’s not backing down on his education record or his passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Thus far, Hillary has been willing to criticize some the achievements of the first Clinton presidency, but is far from throwing Bill under the bus. It’s likely she never will. This is important to understand in regard to a potential Hillary Clinton presidency. While Sanders drew enough support to progressivize the Democratic platform, Hillary Clinton is not now and will never be a socialist. By today’s standards, she is a moderate Democrat.
So while a Warren or a Booker may have the potential to ignite the progressive base in ways Kaine can’t in October, they also have the potential to ignite the White House in January. If Warren wants higher taxes and massive government spending, and Bill wants to use his neoliberal economic policies, to whom would Hillary listen? In his 1994 book “The Agenda,” Bob Woodward paints a dreary and divisive picture of Bill Clinton’s first year. Hillary was a big part of that. Kaine offers her the best chance at a vice president who will be a teammate, not a rival to her husband.
With Confidence Comes Risk
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz can all attest to the danger in playing past Trump. Each in his own way tried to use Trump’s presumed inevitable fade to enhance his own chances. The confidence that Trump would collapse led them to look ahead, rather than focus squarely on defeating him. Selecting Kaine suggests Hillary Clinton may be playing that same perilous game.
Surely, the playing field of the general election is different. Trump will not become president by garnering 40 percent of Republican primary voters. He must expand his base and ceiling considerably, and few are terribly confident that he can. But the fact remains that Hillary Clinton is dreadfully unpopular. If the 2016 election boils down to each side saying, “Well, our candidate isn’t great, but the other one is worse,” then the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton could hurt her badly.
Trump supporters should take heart Clinton did not go for a kill shot with her choice of a running mate. In fact, she did almost nothing to soothe the distrust of progressives. Her surrogates are saying that wasn’t necessary because fear of Trump will bring out the Left. Maybe. But in politics, just as in baseball, it’s dangerous to leave runners in scoring position. Clinton sees a clear path to the White House right now even without a firebrand leftist running mate, but if things look different in two months, this might be a choice she regrets.
From the moment they entered the national spotlight to the present campaign and likely in our grandchildren’s history books, the Clintons’ work as a team defines them in many ways. One way or another we are coming to the close of that story, either with a new presidency or a crushing defeat. Clinton seems sure that coda will be the former, and she is willing to risk the latter to ensure stability in the White House she hopes to occupy.