The Kaine Mutiny
Why responding to the State of the Union isn't the next best thing to giving it.
Friday, Jan. 27, 2006
Browbeating: For the past week, bloggers have been trashing the choice of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to deliver next Tuesday's Democratic response to the State of the Union Address. Arianna Huffington weighed in first, saying, "Chalk up another one for the What the Hell Are They Thinking? file." Other blogs have gone after Kaine for opposing same-sex marriage, lacking Jack Murtha's expertise on foreign policy, and being no match for Barack Obama as an orator.
One lefty blog lamented that "the Dems chose someone who touted his religious faith to get elected." Another called him a "squat, squinty, pug-nosed fellow." From the right, a commentator noted Kaine's ability to arch one brow, and warned, "Prepare for 'The Eyebrow.' " That prompted a reader to compare Kaine to browbeaten ex-con and former Nixon domestic-policy adviser John Ehrlichman.
Poor Tim Kaine—drawing the short straw to deliver the official response to the State of the Union ought to be punishment enough.
In truth, Kaine's a fine choice—a fresh face most welcome in a party desperate for a makeover. He just won a campaign that the White House foolishly tried to turn into a referendum on the president's performance, and offers an appealing contrast to the status quo. Thanks to Kaine and his predecessor Mark Warner, Virginia has a budget surplus. As the Congressional Budget Office reported yesterday, the rest of us are stuck with Bush's deficits for the next decade. Kaine and Warner changed the tone in Richmond, winning praise from both sides of the aisle. This week, Bush whined to Kansans about the tone in Washington, just days after Karl Rove promised once again to use the nation's security as a partisan wedge issue.
When a Republican legislator accidently shot the bulletproof vest on his coat rack at the State Capitol in Richmond yesterday, the man apologized, and Kaine teased him about his good aim. In Washington, the motto of the Bush White House has been shoot first, apologize never.
It's easy to understand Democratic frustration with losing, but as the party's most recent winner, Tim Kaine is the last guy who should be bearing the brunt of it. On the contrary, Democrats from across the spectrum should be throwing him a ticker-tape parade, for showing how to turn the Republicans' vicious wedge-issue campaign against them. When Kaine talked about his faith, he wasn't being cynical—he was giving a refreshingly candid response to the GOP's deeply cynical attacks on his opposition to the death penalty.
The Kaine mutiny is troubling not just because a few bloggers are picking on the wrong guy. It's also a disturbing reminder of how much time most of us in the blogosphere—and in politics generally—waste pretending that daily tactical decisions are what matters.
I happen to think Tim Kaine will give a good talk next Tuesday. But if I really thought the Democratic Party's future turned on the Democratic response, I'd pack it in and start looking for a new profession. I've watched the post-State of the Union ritual for 20 years now, and not once has the poor soul giving the response—or his party—come out a winner for it.
The Dud Zone: Surfergirl may have other suggestions, but if I could award an Emmy for the Ten Most Excruciating Minutes in Television, the opposition party's response to the State of the Union would be the runaway winner. No matter which party is responding, which leader reads the teleprompter, or which hokey backdrop is chosen, the effect is the same: the ten-minute equivalent of your local TV station's Ted Baxter giving one of his just-my-opinion commentaries.
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.