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Vice President Tim Kaine?

A Commentary by Larry Sabato

We have no earthly idea if Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is Obama's choice for Vice President. All we know is that distinguished reporters who claim to have good sources are calling and saying that Kaine is on the short-short list.

Since the Crystal Ball is based in Virginia, and since we have followed Tim Kaine's career since it began on the Richmond City Council in 1994, we'll offer our readers a brief precis on what Kaine would add to the ticket, and what he would not, should the rumors prove accurate.

As with all potential Veep picks, there are pluses and minuses. Let's start with Kaine's advantages:

1. Personal Chemistry

There can be little doubt that this is the main reason why Obama is looking at Kaine. The first state governor outside Obama's Illinois to endorse Obama for President, Kaine was immediately drawn to the Illinois senator because they are two peas in a political pod. Both Harvard Law graduates with Kansas roots, both attorneys with a central focus on civil rights, and both relatively new to the big leagues, Obama and Kaine clearly like one another and enjoy each other's company.

Obama has realized that a modern Vice President practically lives with the Chief Executive, especially in times of crisis, and he wants someone he can trust completely. One other similarity that some see is less flattering. Obama and Kaine are both supremely self-confident, and their adversaries (and even some of their friends) occasionally detect a hint of hubris and arrogance. On the other hand, we have never known a President or governor who was genuinely humble. That special quality possessed by the meek doesn't go hand in hand with high political office.

2. Emphasis on Domestic Policy

The foremost issue in the minds of voters isn't Iraq or foreign affairs anymore; it's the sour economy and domestic policy. A governor focuses daily on the key components of domestic concern--jobs, education, transportation, health care, and the like. Kaine could speak with self assurance in these fields. Not only has he served as governor, but he was on the Richmond City Council from 1994 to 2001 (when he was elected lieutenant governor), and the Council-elected mayor of Richmond from 1998-2001. As an ambassador to the urban areas of America, Kaine would have credibility.

3. Out-of-Washington Change

It has not escaped anyone's notice that the President is at 25 percent approval, the Congress is around 15 percent, and even the Supreme Court has fallen below 50 percent in some polls. Since Obama has been in Washington barely long enough to learn the street layout, he can avoid the awful, prevailing D.C. taint. Kaine adds emphasis to the 'change' theme since he has no Washington experience of any kind.

4. Virginia

For decades, analysts prematurely proclaimed that the Old Dominion had become the New Dominion, and in the twenty-first century it's finally true. Among the most improbable of 2008's toss-up states, Virginia is on the knife's edge. It is not unreasonable to expect the sitting Governor to add a couple of points to Obama's total. Kaine is popular (mid-50s in most surveys), though not wildly so, as was his predecessor, Mark Warner, who is currently cruising to a big U.S. Senate victory in the state.

Oh, it almost goes without saying that John McCain would have a very difficult time finding the 13 electoral votes he might lose in Virginia. Keep in mind that Virginia has voted Republican in thirteen of the last fourteen presidential contests (save only LBJ's in 1964), and the state is tied for the best GOP record in the nation. Even Georgian Jimmy Carter, who won all the other states of the South, couldn't take Virginia. Defeat in the New Dominion would be a major and perhaps decisive blow to McCain. Could Tim Kaine be the first VP nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1960 to deliver a critical, toss-up home state for his ticket?

5. Special Qualities

Kaine is Roman Catholic, often described as "devout" even though he is pro-choice in effect while projecting a pro-life image and accepting of the death penalty despite personal opposition to it. Catholics are a swing vote in 2008, and Kaine's Christian religious orientation matches Obama's. This might help with the campaign's much publicized outreach to church-going Americans. Kaine is a former missionary to Honduras and he speaks fluent Spanish, which can only assist in the effort to woo Hispanics.

Kaine is more national than real Virginian (as a native of Virginia, this author can snobbishly suggest this), having been born in Minnesota, having grown up in Kansas, and having attended colleges in Missouri and Massachusetts. Therefore, Kaine has ties to three swing states (MN, MO, and VA). Kaine has a bipartisan dimension, since his father-in-law is Linwood Holton, Virginia's first Republican Governor of the 20th century, who served from 1970 to 1974. Republicans will be quick to add that Holton has long since left the party--Holton says the party left him--and he recently told this author that the only Republican he has voted for in recent times is retiring U.S. Sen. John Warner, a moderate.

Kaine is highly articulate, young (age 50, close to Obama's 46 years), and an accomplished campaigner. As a team, they will look good and make sense, much as the youthful team of Bill Clinton and Al Gore produced synergy for 1992's Democrats. Finally, fulfilling the oldest VP mandate of "first, do no harm", Kaine is squeaky clean and scandal-free, as even his enemies admit, and he is unlikely to commit gaffes or deflect attention from the presidential nominee

There are no perfect people, and that goes double for VP picks. So Kaine brings certain disadvantages and baggage to Obama, too:

1. Lack of Experience Where It Is Most Needed

Other than the possibility of racial leakage at the polls--the chance that many white voters who would otherwise vote Democratic this year will be unable to cast a ballot for an African-American--there is no greater threat to Obama's victory than his inexperience. With fewer than four years in Washington as a senator, most of which has been spent running for president, plus a stint in the Illinois State Senate, Obama's public office resume is undeniably thin. His recent successful Magical Mystery Tour of eight European and Middle Eastern countries notwithstanding, Obama has little or no foreign policy, military, and national security experience.

Unless one counts foreign trade missions, Kaine has even less knowledge of these areas than Obama. Survey after survey has shown that Americans have a hard time, at least so far, seeing Obama in the role of commander-in-chief. A VP pick with solid background in the military or international arena would be reassuring. Kaine provides no comfort there, and it may cost Obama. Overall, Kaine has executive experience as a mayor and governor that perhaps balances Obama's purely legislative resume. Yet this would be a team whose elective resume is rather skimpy, beginning only in the mid-1990s, with just one truly consequential office each--and not a full term in it for either.

2. The Hillary Factor

Few insiders believe there is a chance Obama will pick Hillary Clinton, despite her near-tie with Obama in popular votes and delegates. The reasons are well known, including lack of personal chemistry and the potential campaign and White House role of Bill Clinton. But given continuing reluctance among some Hillary voters to back Obama, is it a risk for Obama to form a ticket with Kaine, one of his earliest and most ardent backers? Might it not make more sense for Obama to select a former strong Hillary backer--though someone of pleasant personality with whom Obama could forge a working partnership? The obvious name is Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who some say is also on Obama's short-short list.

3. Kaine's Governorship

Few nonpartisan observers in Virginia regard Kaine's tenure in the Governor's Office as particularly successful. Having known every governor since Albertis Harrison (1962-1966) and having studied the records of the dozen most recent governors, I would characterize Kaine's term to this point as belonging to the bottom quartile. To be fair, he has a year and a half to go, and sometimes a Virginia governor can make a final push that raises his grade considerably.

So far, Kaine has had one shining moment after the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, when he handled the tragedy with aplomb--easily on a par with Gov. Frank Keating's management of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 or Gov. Haley Barbour's skill in bringing Mississippi back from the brink of chaos after Hurricane Katrina. But otherwise, his executive tenure has recorded few significant successes and one giant, overriding failure in the transportation field where Kaine hoped to make his mark. Is Kaine solely responsible? Absolutely not.

The Republican House of Delegates, controlled by social conservatives and anti-tax partisans, has been determined not to give Kaine a major achievement. "No more Mark Warners" has been their slogan, believing that the GOP's willingness to work with Kaine's Democratic predecessor to pass a large tax hike created a political juggernaut in Warner, and deeply alienated the right-wing Republican base. Still, even Democratic legislators friendly to Kaine say privately that he is often a distant governor, certainly compared to Warner, inclined to give orders without thorough follow-up and flexibility. Whether Kaine's record as Governor would matter much to a national audience is doubtful, so this may not be much of a threat to Obama.

4. The Aftermath in Virginia

Naturally, Obama would not be especially concerned about the post-Kaine era in Virginia, and given the frustrations of his governorship, one could hardly blame Kaine for grabbing a chance to move up and out--and eventually perhaps have his own shot at the presidency. However, many Virginia Democrats are privately unhappy at the prospect of Kaine leaving in mid-term, potentially the first Virginia governor not to complete the single four-year term since it was established beginning in 1852. That is because Kaine would be succeeded by a deeply conservative Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling.

Undoubtedly and appropriately, Bolling would quickly move to put his own stamp on state government with a new Cabinet, agency heads, and board appointments. Under an agreement previously reached with the now-presumptive 2009 GOP gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, Bolling would be the Republican nominee for a full term. (The election is in November 2009.) Bolling had side-stepped a divisive GOP primary with a grateful McDonnell in order to run for reelection to the lieutenant governorship, but part of their gentleman's agreement--confirmed by both men to me at the time--guaranteed Bolling the nomination if he should succeed to the top spot before the June 2009 nominating deadline. Thus, for the first time since 1852, an incumbent Governor, Bill Bolling, would seek reelection.

While mistakes in office could always deny him the prize, the presumption would be that Virginians would not want three governors in one year. Thus, Kaine's departure could deliver a five-year Bolling governorship, quite possibly followed by a term of McDonnell. (The modern Virginia tradition has been to give a party at least two consecutive terms in the governor's chair, even though the one-term-and-out rule means that different people would be elected every four years.) The Bolling term would include the redistricting year of 2011, possibly enabling Republicans to tenure in their state legislative and U.S. House incumbents for another decade. The Senate of Virginia, narrowly controlled by the Democrats (21 to 19) and dependant upon the good health of an eighty-something incumbent, could also go Republican in 2011, with a GOP governor leading the charge. This would wipe out Democratic momentum in Virginia.

We're jumping way ahead, and perhaps this nightmare scenario for Democrats would be short-circuited somewhere along the way--but it is very much in the minds of senior Virginia Democrats as they contemplate an early Kaine departure for the Vice Presidency. And the top Republicans will hardly believe their luck, if this comes to pass. In all states, gaining the governorship is the key to expanding a party's political control. The Virginia GOP has been deep down and virtually out since 2001, but they may well owe their comeback to a Democratic presidential candidate and a Democratic governor. By the way, this same situation could develop even if Kaine is not chosen VP. A President-Elect Obama would almost certainly offer Kaine a Cabinet post. Were Kaine to take it, Republicans would begin their roll.

Democrats will happily absorb the first half of this essay, while Republicans will eagerly focus on the second half. As always, the Crystal Ball tries to walk in the middle of the road--that six-inch-wide yellow line where you get hit from both sides.

This entire piece of prose is pure speculation, of course. But hasn't it been fun?

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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