Just How 'Responsible' a Choice Is Tim Kaine?

The virtues that Hillary Clinton identified in Tim Kaine are also the ones that have led her astray in the past.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

In 2008, Barack Obama famously wanted a “team of rivals” in his administration. He began with his running mate, who was utterly unlike him. Obama was a political newcomer; Joe Biden was a Beltway veteran. Obama appealed to African Americans and upscale liberals; Biden appealed to blue collar whites. Obama was disciplined; Biden was unruly. Obama was cool; Biden was warm.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has chosen a male version of herself. Like Clinton, Tim Kaine is a culturally conservative liberal. He’s a devout Catholic who personally opposes abortion despite believing it should be legal. For her part, Clinton is a devout Methodist—she’s taught Sunday school, lectured on Methodist theology and participated in various prayer groups—who is personally skeptical of abortion, too. In 2005, she called it “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women” and looked forward to the day when “the choice guaranteed under our Constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.”

Like Clinton, Kaine has intimate ties to the black community. In his first case after law school, he represented a victim of housing discrimination. To this day, he and his wife belong to a mostly African American church. In her first job after law school, Clinton worked for Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund. African American women have been among her closest aides since she entered national politics in the 1990s.

Finally, Kaine, like Clinton, is wonky, hard working and cautious. For Clinton, who famously said she’s “cursed with the responsibility gene,” Kaine’s chief attraction—according to media reports—was not his ability to help her win the presidency. It was his ability to be president. As one Clinton confidante told Politico’s Glenn Thrush, “She’s been in the White House, and knows the kind of person who can really do the job … He gives off president vibes. And that’s all that mattered to Hillary.”

“Responsibility,” even dull, nerdy responsibility, is a good thing in a president. If Americans had valued it more highly in 2000, the United States would be in a better place today. But it’s worth noting that Hillary Clinton’s definition of  “responsibility” has ideological overtones. It inclines her toward the political center. And the Kaine selection illustrates that, too.

In foreign policy, Clinton has tended to define the “responsible” position as the more hawkish one. Her comment about being “cursed with the responsibility gene,” for instance, came during an explanation of why she wouldn’t support a full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2007. In 2008, she employed the same language to critique Obama’s offer to meet the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions. That, Clinton explained, was “irresponsible.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Kaine, Clinton’s “responsible” choice for vice president, is relatively hawkish himself. Like Clinton, and unlike Obama, he backs a no-fly zone in Syria. Like Clinton, he’s criticized Obama’s emphasis on not doing “stupid stuff” because, in Kaine’s words, it also keeps the president from “not doing stuff that’s stupid not to do.”

It’s also telling that Kaine, the “responsible” pick, has more centrist economic views than potential veep candidates Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Tom Perez. Kaine voted for the fast-track trade authority that Obama needs to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress and recently signed a letter urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to weaken regulations on local banks and credit unions.

To be sure, being a “responsible” centrist Democratic doesn’t mean the same thing today it meant 10 or 20 years ago, when the Democratic Leadership Council remained a powerful force. Since then, the party has shifted left, and so has Hillary Clinton, especially on domestic policy. Still, the Kaine pick suggests that, unlike Obama, who has often prided himself on standing athwart Washington conventional wisdom, Clinton will more often incline towards it. Her choice of Kaine underscores her disciplined, serious, earnest approach to governing. But it also underscores her tendency—so tragically in evidence when she voted to invade Iraq—to run with the Washington herd.