On Tim Kaine's Debut (Special-Edition Time Capsule #53)

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Happy Warriors: The ticket, this afternoon in Florida. (Scott Audette / Reuters)

There’s a special “debut” category for vice-presidential selections who very suddenly find themselves in the world’s media glare.

VP picks who had mounted serious runs for president don’t quite fit this category. They already knew what it was like to handle big audiences and the press. For example: the elder George Bush became Ronald Reagan’s VP candidate in 1980, but only after running against Reagan in the primary campaign. The same was true of Joe Biden, who had run against Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) for the nomination in 2008 before becoming Obama’s running mate, and had run 20 years earlier too. In electoral politics, Dick Cheney had gotten only as far as Wyoming’s seat in Congress when George W. Bush picked him in 2000. But Cheney was already internationally known as Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff and George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War.

Then there is the gray zone. Lloyd Bentsen, who ran with Michael Dukakis in 1988, was not well known outside Texas before his famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy!” encounter with Dan Quayle in the VP debate. But he had actually run for president in 1976. (I did my very first Atlantic article about that run.)  Al Gore was a relatively fresh face when Bill Clinton chose him in 1992, but Gore had staged a precocious presidential effort four years earlier. Jack Kemp, who ran with Bob Dole against Clinton-Gore in 1996, had run briefly on his own in 1988, and had a national Republican-party and sports-star reputation to draw on. John Edwards had run against John Kerry in 2004 before becoming his (very unfortunate in retrospect) VP pick.

The list of modern-era true-surprise debuts includes:

  • Spiro Agnew, with Richard Nixon in 1968;
  • Thomas Eagleton, with George McGovern in 1972. (His replacement when he left the ticket, Sargent Shriver, was already relatively well known.)
  • Geraldine Ferraro, with Walter Mondale in 1984;
  • Dan Quayle, with George H.W. Bush in 1988;
  • Joe Lieberman, with Al Gore in 2000;
  • Sarah Palin, with John McCain in 2008;
  • Paul Ryan, with Mitt Romney in 2012; and now
  • Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in 2016.

As you look up and down this list, you can think of better and worse first appearances in the spotlight. Poor Senator Eagleton’s was the most unfortunate, as you can read about here. Agnew’s worked fine at the time; eventually he became on the only VP ever to resign because of criminal charges. Sarah Palin — well, you remember. Both Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro had rough starts, for reasons I’ll let you go look up. Joe Lieberman let Dick Cheney roll right over him in their VP debate.


Tim Kaine’s debut was the best of these I’m aware of, or can remember. (Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech obviously put him on the map, but that was a one-time standalone performance rather than the extended attention that comes with running day after day on a national ticket.) You’ll get the idea about Kaine if you watch the first few minutes below. Points about why I thought it worked, after the jump


Why this worked:

  • The two running mates obviously like and are at ease with each other. Compare this with any scene from the Trump-Pence rollout.
  • The nominee gave an introductory speech that was actually about her running mate, and then she let him talk. Compare this with the narcissistic spectacle of the “Back to Mike Pence” Trump event just one week ago.
  • Tim Kaine came across as comfortable with himself, comfortable with Hillary Clinton, comfortable his party’s position and agenda, and happy. Watch even two or three minutes to see how Kaine carries himself as “Happy Warrior.”
  • Like Pence (and HRC), Kaine was raised in the Midwest. Unlike Pence (or the public HRC), Kaine conveyed a sense of having fun—and with a little twinkle.
  • He deftly touched every policy and signaling theme the Democratic National Convention might have wanted after the Wagnerian tone of the Republican National Convention. His Marine Corps son is heading off to defend NATO allies—the same allies Donald Trump has said need to pony up if they want protection. He told the members of his hometown Catholic church that he would see them tomorrow morning at 9 a.m., and he talked about the duty of service he had learned from his Jesuit teachers.
  • And of course the Espanol. When Jon Huntsman was throwing Mandarin into his speeches four years ago, it always seemed like showing off. Neither John Kerry nor Mitt Romney, Francophones both, felt comfortable using that language in front of mainstream U.S. audiences. George W. Bush and (my one-time employer) Jimmy Carter both sort-of spoke Spanish. But Kaine is obviously comfortable with it.
    I asked my friend Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, how Kaine would sound to native-speakers’ ears. He answered (via Twitter):  

    See Michael Tomasky, who also thought that Kaine did well. Or as his headline put it, “Holy Crap, Tim Kaine Just Killed It in His First Speech With Clinton.”

The election is a long way away. But this was the best day the Democrats have had in a very long while and the first based on actual good news for their side, as opposed to potential bad news on the other—of the variety chronicled in the rest of this thread.