Tim Kaine’s Declaration of Independence

The Virginia senator’s early call for a war vote in Congress helped him break free of President Obama and earn a spot as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

When Tim Kaine ran for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 2012, Republicans attacked him in the same way they attacked virtually every Democrat running for Congress during Barack Obama’s tenure: They tried to tie him as closely as possible to the unpopular president.

In Kaine’s case, this required no rhetorical gymnastics or misleading analyses of voting records. Until he jumped into the Senate race left open by the retirement of Jim Webb, Kaine had been Obama’s handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee—a job that was itself something of a consolation prize after Obama chose Joe Biden instead of the former Virginia governor as his running mate. The GOP set up a website, cheerleaderinchief.com. Again, this wasn’t really a misnomer. In the modern era, a chairman of the party in power is pretty much a cheerleader for the president’s policies, promoting them to donors and the public as a prominent television surrogate. There is no such thing as a politically independent party chairman.

Kaine leaned into his close association, and friendship, with Obama. And in a good year for Democrats, he won.

As a Senate candidate, Kaine didn’t parrot Obama on every issue—he disagreed with the White House on the income threshold for extending the Bush-era tax cuts, for example, and on the specifics of a religious exemption to the contraception mandate in Obamacare. But unlike Democratic hopefuls from swing and red states, he didn’t go out of his way to distance himself from the president. “That would be inauthentic,” Kaine reasoned at the time, according to Mo Elleithee, a former top adviser.“People would see through that, and besides, that’s not who I am. He’s a personal friend and I support him.”

Kaine had run an ad promising to work with a president of either party, noting previous collaborations with President Bush during his tenure as governor. He said he had disagreed with Obama on certain issues, but ultimately, the two just didn’t differ on all that much. “He carried that approach with him to the Senate,” Elleithee said, “and I think he got a lot of street cred for that—both with the White House and with people back home.”

A year and a half after arriving in the Senate, however, Kaine did break with the man he once served in a much more vocal way: He called on Obama to seek congressional authorization for the use of military force against ISIS and began pushing back against the administration’s claims that it had all the authority it needed to launch airstrikes in Iraq. “President Obama said in May 2013 that he would work with Congress to update the 2001 [Authorization for the Use of Military Force],” Kaine wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

It is June 2014, and there has been no progress. The White House should submit to Congress a new draft authorization to deal with today’s threats. Now is clearly the time for this debate. I believe the president must come to Congress for authority to initiate any U.S. military action in Iraq.

It would be another six months before Obama would actually ask Congress for a new AUMF, a request that came long after he began dropping bombs in Iraq and Syria. Kaine has continued pushing for Congress to act, but more than two years after his initial demand, neither the House nor the Senate has been able to agree on language that both authorizes and constrains the war against ISIS.

An aide to Kaine, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized spokesman for the senator, said he became interested in the War Powers Resolution and Congress’s role in declaring war after studying a 2007 report issued while he was governor by a bipartisan commission at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The recommendations became the basis for legislation he introduced with Senator John McCain in 2013 to revise the 1973 law.

Those close to Kaine said his outspoken advocacy for a resolution authorizing the war against ISIS flowed from a genuine belief in Congress’s responsibility to weigh in, both from a Constitutional and a moral standpoint. But they don’t deny that it also helped him politically on two key fronts.

When Obama considered tapping him for the vice presidency in 2008, Kaine had been serving as Virginia’s governor for just two and a half years. He had no foreign-policy experience, and had been in statewide office less than a year longer than Sarah Palin. Kaine scored seats on both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees in the Senate, but taking a high-profile stand on the AUMF was clearly an opportunity for him to bolster his credentials on the military and foreign affairs.

And by getting out in front of the White House, Kaine was also able to demonstrate his independence in a way that was comfortable for him—without aggressively bashing the president. “He wasn’t shopping for an issue that could distinguish himself from the administration,” the aide said.

Whether Kaine’s push for a new AUMF will die down now that he is Hillary Clinton’s running mate is unclear. Hillary Clinton has come out in support of updating the 2001 authorization, but she has not made it a significant part of her agenda for defeating the Islamic State. In a statement, Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Lehrich said Clinton supports Kaine’s position but gave little indication about how hard she would push Congress to act.

“Hillary Clinton agrees with Senator Kaine that if we are serious about confronting ISIS, Congress ought to express its resolve to stand behind our military and win this fight by passing a new AUMF, and she has publicly applauded Kaine’s efforts,” Lehrich said. Kaine’s experience in the Senate was clearly key to Clinton’s decision, but while his advocacy on war powers might have helped him get on the ticket, it probably carries less weight in a Clinton White House. As vice president, after all, Kaine would be returning to a familiar role: serving as an unwavering surrogate for the president, political independence neither required nor desired.