In picking Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton missed an opportunity

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton picks Tim Kaine as her VP choice
  • Sally Kohn says a running mate from the party's progressive wing would have sent an important signal

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)In case you didn't hear any fanfare late Friday night when Hillary Clinton announced her vice presidential running mate, that's because Tim Kaine is not a fanfare type of candidate. He is, by definition, meh. Then again, running against the irrational and unpredictable Donald Trump and his out of touch right wing running mate Mike Pence, maybe a steady dose of "meh" is what this election needs.

Tim Kaine is basically unobjectionable, which is really just an extension of Hillary Clinton's most plausible case to would-be Republican voters — "You should vote for me because that Trump guy is nuts." That's not to say there aren't plenty of reasons to affirmatively vote for Hillary Clinton — here's a good list of 112 of them. But the fact is that a lot of the country seems hell-bent on hating her no matter how experienced, knowledgeable and thoughtful she proves herself to be. So for her campaign, a smart tactical move is make sure those voters hate Trump more than they hate Clinton. In this calculus, Tim Kaine makes sense.
    He doesn't make you feel much of anything one way or the other.
    This is, of course, not true for progressives — the so-called Warren-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. We were truly hoping for a bold choice in Hillary's running mate, along the lines of Elizabeth Warren herself or at least Sherrod Brown or Tom Perez.
    It would have been refreshing if the Clinton campaign — and by extension the Democratic establishment — finally recognized that centrist big business-cozy economic policies, military hawkishness and social and environmental incrementalism were not only alienating many Democrats but the American people in general.
    Donald Trump is a divisive, xenophobic, angry hate mongerer. But he has also tapped into the real economic desperation felt by many Americans. Bernie Sanders also understood and spoke to that economic desperation in both the rhetoric and policy of his campaign.
    Hillary has tried to make a pivot to appeal to the Sanders voters, but it remains an awkward fit with her centrist past. A bold, progressive VP choice would have been both an important symbol and translator — helping Clinton secure not only the begrudging but also enthusiastic support of the progressive vote, and also potentially lure many Trump voters drawn to his anti-trade strands of populism.
    But that's not what happened. Instead, we got Tim Kaine. The Tim Kaine who supported fast-track authorization for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and said opponents of free trade have "a loser's mentality." The Tim Kaine who supports parental notification laws and a ban on late-term abortions — although during his time in the Senate, Kaine has earned a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood for votes there. The Tim Kaine who has promoted mythical, anti-environmental "clean coal." The Tim Kaine who repealed Virginia's estate tax. The Tim Kaine who supports anti-union, anti-worker so-called "right to work" laws.
    As if there was any doubt, Third Way — a key centrist Democratic institution — immediately sent out a press release praising Clinton's choice of Kaine. It's hard to know exactly what a conservative is these days as the Republican Party suffers through its very public and painful existential crisis around the concept, but I think we can be fairly clear that whatever the definition of progressive, Tim Kaine isn't one.
    Who is Tim Kaine?
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    Of course, in the grander scheme of a presidential campaign, the vice presidential nominee may not matter that much anyway. Christopher Devine and Kyle C. Kopko, authors of "The VP Advantage: How Running Mates Influence Home State Voting in Presidential Elections," analyzed state-level election returns since 1884 and found no evidence that a vice presidential nominee helps with winning his or her home state — let alone other states.
    Devine and Kopko also tested whether a vice presidential nominee could help turn out voters from her or his demographic — for instance, whether a female VP pick helps turn out women or a Jewish VP pick helps turn out Jewish voters.
    Devine and Kopko found that voters responded positively in surveys — but those positive feelings didn't actually translate to votes. "Women, for instance, were no more likely than in other years to vote for a ticket featuring a woman as running mate, and the same generally goes for religious minorities," Devine and Kopko wrote.
    So other than running for the most critical runner-up position in American politics, what does a vice president do for a presidential campaign? More than any other personnel choice, a presidential candidate's VP pick signals the kind of leaders with which she or he would surround themselves in the White House, as well as the substantive vision he or she would advance. As the saying goes, we're all judged by the company we keep. Or, to borrow another euphemism, actions speak louder than words.
    Amidst political campaigns generally characterized by rhetorical excess, the choice of a running mate is a decisive, specific and telling act. It may not matter to the outcome of the election, but it still matters to our perception of the presidential candidate.
    I understand that Hillary Clinton has to balance appealing to the progressive base while reaching out to swing voters. And yet it should be clear by now that the conventional wisdom that these two goals are at odds is not the case in this anything-but-conventional election cycle.
    Beyond the racial resentment, xenophobia and Islamaphobia that is very plainly coursing through the veins of Trump's candidacy and his supporters' fervor, this election is also marked by a genuine craving for radical change, new ideas and new leadership — a craving that cuts across partisan divides.
    Tim Kaine: From governor to VP running mate
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    Hillary Clinton sells herself as a steady hand amidst this tumult, and that's right, but she also needs to be riding the waves of change to some degree as well. Tim Kaine doesn't help her do that. He's just another rock on the shore.