After months of speculation that Hillary Clinton might select Sen. Elizabeth Warren as her running mate, creating the first-ever two-woman ticket, or perhaps Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a civil rights lawyer who would’ve been the first Latino VP, her choice of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine will bitterly disappoint some of her most progressive supporters.
It’s not just that Kaine, like all 47 veeps in our nation’s history, is a white dude, not a “first” who could have driven home just how historic Hillary’s candidacy is. He’s also, at least in his personal views, opposed to abortion due to his Catholic faith—a symbolic kick in the teeth for the feminist organizations that faithfully championed Hillary over Bernie throughout the long primary season. “Is Clinton a progressive? Not if she chooses Tim Kaine,” Jodi Jacobson of the reproductive rights site Rewire wrote Thursday.
That’s not to say that Kaine is running to be a heartbeat from the presidency while nursing a secret plot to overturn Roe v. Wade. Like Vice President Joe Biden—another Catholic, personally anti-abortion Democrat—he’s said that he supports the Supreme Court ruling that established a woman’s right to choose; also like Biden, Kaine has seemed to drift leftward on the issue of late. But his personal beliefs have sometimes seemed to influence his public policymaking, making his selection an optical, and perhaps actual, move toward the center for Hillary.
The Tim Kaine who has represented Virginia in the Senate since 2012 has seemed several shades more liberal on reproductive rights than the Tim Kaine who led the state as governor from 2006 to 2010. As Politico wrote in a deep-dive about Kaine’s “abortion predicament” earlier this month:
Kaine has tried to cultivate an image as an abortion-rights champion. He’s pleased reproductive rights’ groups with a perfect voting record. He’s railed against GOP attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. And he’s celebrated in their legal victories, including last week’s Supreme Court ruling tossing out a Texas law that tried limiting a woman’s access to abortion clinics.
But it’s hard to know whether Kaine’s new look reflects his own changing attitudes, or the changing shape of the Democratic Party. In 2005, he ran for governor on promises to promote adoption, reduce abortion, and support the farce that is abstinence-only sex education. While in office, he backed a so-called partial birth abortion ban, which prohibits a certain method of mid- and late-term abortion, though he supported exceptions in cases where a woman’s health was endangered. He also supported a parental consent law that requires minors to get a parent’s signoff before obtaining an abortion—and though that law theoretically includes a “judicial bypass” option, teens are often prevented from using it by misinformation, as the Huffington Post has reported.
Kaine also bears some responsibility for Virginia’s “informed consent” law, which, among other things, requires women seeking abortions to submit to a medically unnecessary ultrasound. He said in 2008 that the law would provide “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” But the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-reproductive rights research organization, has found that many states provide women with “incomplete or inaccurate information,” and that laws like the one Kaine shepherded into Virginia’s constitution often amount to “informational manipulation” of women in already vulnerable situations.
In 2007, NARAL Pro-Choice America gave Virginia an “F” in its annual reproductive freedom report and called Kaine a “mixed choice” governor. Two years later, Kaine incensed local and national women’s rights groups by signing a law that allowed the sale of “Choose Life” license plates whose proceeds went to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. “It is unfortunate that, even after receiving thousands of messages from Virginians and pro-choice activists across the country, Gov. Kaine has opted to sign a bill that advances a divisive political ideology at the expense of women's health,” Nancy Keenan, then-president of NARAL, said at the time.
How much should progressives care that Clinton picked Kaine, a man who has loyally voted with his party on abortion in the Senate, but who created barriers for women in the state of Virginia? After all, it’s possible that he could spend four or eight years as V.P. and never touch the issue. In a smart piece on Kaine, New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore argued that his critics’ motivation is largely philosophical: “[I]n recent years, there's been a trend among pro-choice folk that's less friendly to the old ‘personally opposed to but’ pivot, or to any other attitude that condemns abortion morally while tolerating its legality. More and more feminists are insisting on recognition of abortion as a routine medical service like any other, if not an actual social or moral good.”
Still, symbolism matters in politics. As a popular moderate from a battleground state, Kaine is a savvy choice in lots of ways, and Clinton may have correctly calculated that, after all her years advocating for women’s rights, feminists will stand by her regardless. But it’s hard to get excited about Kaine. Worse, his selection begs the question of whether, on an issue that had seemed so near and dear to Clinton’s heart, we can be sure that we know where—or at least how firmly—she stands.