A few days ago, Tim Kaine gave perhaps the best debut speech of any presidential running mate in recent history. He showed that he is a happy warrior who will fight for his deepest convictions while directly challenging his opponents, all without turning to the bile and hateful rhetoric that permeate American politics. In his first big speech, he showed sincerity, optimism, energy, and verve. His optimism and patriotism sharply contrast with the doom and gloom denigration of the United States by Donald Trump during his RNC speech. Kaine’s policy knowledge and seriousness contrast with the utter vapidity of Trump’s campaign, while he explained his positions in a relaxed, genial way that is easy for everyday Americans to understand.
While left-wing culture warriors have pushed a strategy centered on social libertarianism that is designed to win the White House despite being deeply damaging to many Democrats running for Congress and at the state level, Kaine offered an alternative: a complete and total focus on issues facing working class and middle class Americans. He talked about building bridges and having a “kids and family first president.” He highlighted Hillary Clinton’s communitarian impulses, the most admirable elements of her political vision and drive, while showing that he too sincerely believes we are “stronger together.” It is an important message at a time when radical individualism is poisoning both parties through the disproportionate power of self-centered economic elites.
What was really remarkable was how fluidly and authentically he talked about his faith and how it drives his life and commitment to social justice. Given the rising number of ‘nones’ in the Democratic coalition, it is remarkable how religiously devout the Clinton-Kaine ticket is. Kaine said, “I’m a Catholic and Hillary is a Methodist, but I tell ya, her creed is the same as mine: do all the good you can.” One may disagree with their application of Christian ethical principles or how they blend their faith and political life (as I’ll discuss below), but it is clear that both are driven by a deep, sincere Christian faith (unless you are blinded by the beam in your eye, as you busily search for apostates while intentionally or unwittingly propping up plutocracy, a fairly common ailment on social media).
Kaine talked about his experience at a Jesuit high school and how its motto of being “men for others” has become his north star, the organizing principle for what he wanted to do. He also took a year off to volunteer in Honduras, which solidified the priorities of “fe, familia, y trabajo” (faith, family, and work).
Faith inspires his passion for public service. He talked about keeping families together through comprehensive immigration reform and addressed the serious economic challenges they face. And he talked about the importance and dignity of work. Much of his speech focused on how government can make a positive impact in people’s lives and promote their flourishing, from protecting God’s creation to addressing gun violence to building an economy that works for everyone with paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, and a living wage. Ron Klain noted Kaine’s actual record on such matters, tweeting: “Kaine successfully took on the NRA in a gun state, smoking in a tobacco state, climate change in a coal state.”
Kaine, who peppered his speech with Spanish, offered an alternative to the divisive scapegoating of others, reminding Americans of the value of our diversity. He said, “God has created a rich and beautiful tapestry in this country. It is a rainbow of cultural diversity that embraces all people…” He talked about the United States being a country of welcome and inclusion.
He also talked about seeing dictatorship close up and dinged the dictator-admiring candidate on top of the Republican ticket (“He doesn’t trash talk everybody—he likes Vladimir Putin.”). Kaine cautioned that Trump’s approach to NATO is an “open invitation to Vladimir Putin to just role on in.” At the same time, Kaine’s son is a Marine who is headed to Europe to uphold America’s commitment to our NATO allies. What a contrast on what should be one of the central issues of the campaign.
Of course, for those who believe in Church teaching on both the sanctity of life and social justice (including pro-life Democrats and other whole life voters), this outstanding speech makes his recent ‘evolution’ on abortion even more disappointing. He once identified as pro-life (not just “personally pro-life”), pledged to reduce the number of abortions, approved funding for crisis pregnancy centers, favored parental notification, and supported numerous restrictions on abortion, notably touting his work to restrict late-term abortions. He also opposed taxpayer funding of abortion. His precise position was always somewhat ambiguous, but he was willing to break with the abortion-on-demand elites who hold disproportionate power in the Democratic Party and are currently attacking him because he does not view abortion as a positive good. NARAL Virginia even refused to endorse him in the past. Over time, though, he has appeared to come to the realization that having even a mixed position on abortion would make it impossible for him to be on a national ticket (despite being on President Obama’s shortlist in 2008). His pro-choice but “personally opposed” position is not particularly coherent or in line with the rest of the worldview he articulated in his speech, something that points to political considerations shaping his current position.
We can still hope that Kaine will oppose the abortion litmus test that is holding the Democratic Party back from being a big tent party that is open to Catholics who are pro-life and pro-social justice (along with greater success for the party in legislative elections). We can hope that he will favor moderation and be a voice against pro-choice extremism in the campaign and in the administration. Perhaps he will even encourage Hillary Clinton to once against state her own moral qualms about abortion and desire to reduce the number of abortions. But what a message it would have sent to have put someone like Tim Kaine on the ticket without him having to shift on abortion. It is a lost opportunity, but, given the reality of elite domination of both parties until there is substantial political reform, Kaine should be seen as a strong, responsible choice for a running mate. And he showed why in his debut speech.