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Tim Kaine: The Wonderbread of VP picks

So… Tim Kaine, I guess.

Huh.

Hillary Clinton’s VP pick, the matter of speculation, excitement and fervid political fan-fiction for months, has turned out to be the mother of all disappointing reveals. This man is one of the least interesting, charismatic and inspiring politicians I have ever personally witnessed. And I’ve seen Martin O’Malley, a man so uninteresting that people have had to report to doctors with severe memory loss immediately after looking at his picture. Tim Kaine is so boring, his own mother forgot to put his pictures on the refrigerator. Tim Kaine is so boring, his wedding vows were the assembly instructions for an IKEA couch. Tim Kaine is so boring he… wait. What were we talking about again? I got bored and drifted off there for a second.

Oh. Right. Tim Kaine. But, while it’s fun to dump on Tim Kaine — the unseasoned oatmeal of VP picks — it’s less fun to think about what this means for Clinton’s candidacy. There were a lot of interesting ways to go here, but many of them were risky. And, in a classically frustrating Hillary Clinton move, the prospect of “risk” drove her right back into the arms of a perceived safety that may no longer exist. In another year, in another campaign, conventional wisdom would have deemed Kaine — a ninety-nine-cent vanilla pudding cup that turned into a person — the perfect VP pick. He was very nearly Obama’s vice president, for that exact reason. But this is not that year, and this is not that campaign. This is 2016, and conventional wisdom no longer applies.

It’s not that Kaine — the “sensible white sneakers” of human beings — is unremittingly terrible. He currently has a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood (key word: “currently”), NARAL, and the Human Rights Campaign, and he’s also got an F from the NRA. The firm anti-gun stance puts him in line with Clinton’s stated priorities, and the fact that he fought housing discrimination as a lawyer helps, given that, you know, Clinton’s opponent has been sued for housing discrimination. He won’t eat up the spotlight, and he won’t go rogue. He makes tactical sense: He’s from a battleground state, Virginia, and he’s from the South, where Clinton did well, and he’s able to leave the Senate without having his replacement picked by a Republican governor, which many other people on Clinton’s shortlist could not do. I also hear Tim Kaine speaks Spanish. The problem is that none of the Spanish-speaking audience members will actually hear it, because they will all be fast asleep, because the Spanish will be coming from the mouth of Tim Kaine.

There are many things that Tim Kaine — a room-temperature glass of tap water, but with less narrative interest — is not. The problem is that there are very few things Tim Kaine actually is. And most of those missing qualities are things Hillary Clinton needs in order to win the Presidency.

For one thing: Kaine’s a party-line Democrat and a centrist, who has never been the most visible face of any cause. And, like it or not, Clinton is still dealing with the aftermath of a bitter primary and a corresponding fracture in her base. Bernie Sanders went negative; his supporters, frequently, went nuclear. There’s nothing she can do for the real dead-enders, and no possible VP pick could have brought them to her side; Clinton could have tapped Sanders himself, and the only result would be a headline on The Intercept calling Sanders a corporate shill. But there were also many rational, thoughtful people who did prefer Sanders in good faith, who honestly believed he would be a better representative for their concerns, and who are ready to be persuaded; Clinton can get their support, but she has to put in the work and earn it. Elizabeth Warren would have made them happy. Tom Perez could have made them happy. But Tim Kaine — a holiday card from your boss with the wrong name on it — doesn’t even count as a gesture in the right direction.

Tim Kaine also does nothing to assuage one of the main problems people have with Hillary Clinton, which is that she seems almost as boring as Tim Kaine. As a candidate, and as a public figure, she’s been forced to shoulder the burden of being a powerful woman within a sexist society, and this sexism has most frequently been expressed via a deluge of negative press and attacks on her personality. In response to that deluge, she has famously clammed up; the difference between her public and private personas is so well-documented, and her reticence with the press so legendary, that it’s hard not to conclude that the stilted, awkward woman we see on television is not just bad at public speaking, but actually scared of it. Putting Hillary Clinton in a room with a bunch of reporters and cameras is like putting her in a room with a two-ton grizzly; she just wants to get away from the damn thing, without making any sudden moves.

On the campaign trail, she can make up for some of this: She’ll have the vocal support of several excellent public speakers, including Warren, Sanders, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. (No matter how you feel about Bill — and I don’t feel great about him myself — many people love to hear that man talk.) But it would help her tremendously to have some figure within her administration who can play the media game, present and explain her decisions in a more immediately relatable way, and thereby shoulder perhaps the one part of the job she can’t do and doesn’t want. Instead, she picked Tim Kaine, a man so dull his image does not show up on tape.

I could go on. I strongly suspect that I will go on. Nearly everything that made Tim Kaine — the political equivalent of hold music — a “rational” choice also makes him a risky choice for this specific campaign. By choosing a white man, Clinton may have alienated many of the people of color who were her strongest support base in the primaries. By choosing a man with a dicey record on abortion (while he’s dutifully voted the pro-choice party line since joining the Senate, his record as Virginia’s governor ranges from bad to awful) she may alienate the reproductive-justice and feminist activists who were some of her staunchest allies. Sure, maybe she’ll pick up some white guys, but, on the other hand, are you fucking kidding me? She’s Hillary Clinton. The white male demographic became a lost cause for Hillary Clinton somewhere around the time she bragged on national television that she did not bake cookies. And they’re not the people she needs to win.

Which brings us to the scariest problem of all: The guy those white men are supporting. Donald Trump is a creature of pure spectacle, for his supporters and his enemies alike. Say what you like about the live “Triumph of the Will” re-enactment that was the Republican National Convention, but when you’ve got a guy screaming hate speech from a gold-plated podium under twenty-foot lighted letters that spell out his own name, it is very, very hard to look away. He has only gotten this far because he is getting our attention. He is motivating his supporters because he is engaging them emotionally — big emotions, ugly emotions, terrifying emotions, the kind of emotion that can make you physically beat a black man for being in the room, or scream “lock her up” and “hang the bitch” every time an opponent’s name is mentioned. There’s a reason that Hitler reportedly practiced his own speeches extensively in a mirror: What looks like unhinged, in-the-moment rage was a carefully rehearsed performance of the rage he hoped to inspire in his audience, and it worked. And the fact that we are able to plausibly compare Donald Trump’s political tactics to those of Hitler should give you some sense of exactly how much is at stake.

They’re falling in line behind him. They’re looking at him. They care about him. A lot. Too much. But they care. Hillary Clinton has got to find some way to make us care, because this is 2016, and there is no such thing as “normal” any more. There is only Hillary Clinton or catastrophe, and as much as I know many readers do not want to hear that, it is just where we are. She needs to campaign from where we are. Instead, she chose a remnant of a safer time. She chose Tim Kaine. The potential end of American democracy is many things, but it is not boring, and Tim Kaine (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this) is very, very, very boring. One only hopes people will start to see that “boring” might be the better option after all.

Photo: DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons