Why Is Tim Kaine So Low-Key as DNC Chair?

Not too long ago, Tim Kaine was a rising political star. The Democratic governor of Virginia had been tapped to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush's 2006 State of the Union Message, and his close friendship and shared political philosophy with Barack Obama landed him on the Democratic nominee's short list for vice president in 2008. By Election Day, Kaine had helped deliver what was one of Obama's biggest victories of the night: Virginia, which hadn't voted for a Democratic president in 44 years. Shortly thereafter, Obama rewarded his friend with one of the party's highest-profile jobs, that of chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Or, rather, it used to be high-profile.

More than 10 months after Obama presented Kaine as his choice to succeed Howard Dean as DNC chair, the Virginia governor has operated largely under the radar, and not just because his Republican National Committee counterpart, Michael Steele, by comparison, is a master at generating publicity, more bad than good. Kaine has been virtually absent from the national stage, ceding his role as chief political surrogate for the party and the president to others. "I think it's a concern," says one Democratic state party chair, who, like many others in this story, declined to be named so as to be able to speak more freely. "Some Democrats have no idea who our party chairman is, and that is not a good thing, not when we are on the verge of a very tough election."

That includes the race for Kaine's successor. As Virginia prepares to head to the polls to choose a new governor, Kaine is under enormous pressure to help elect the Democrat in the race, Creigh Deeds, not only to ensure his personal political legacy, but also to win a race that has been described as a bellwether for how the public regards Obama's presidency. Kaine has devoted a lot of resources to the race—including at least $6 million from the DNC alone—but Deeds still trails his GOP opponent, Bob McDonnell, by several points. Democrats are bracing for what could be a demoralizing loss, while close Kaine allies worry that he'll be held responsible. Kaine, who joined Deeds on the campaign trail last week, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Why has Kaine been so low-key as DNC chair? Part of it is by design: Kaine, who is serving out his final weeks in the governor's mansion, is working only part-time for the DNC until his time as governor is up. But there are other factors at play, including Kaine's apparent discomfort with the partisanship of the job. Not unlike Obama, Kaine has long campaigned on restoring civility and bipartisanship to politics. At a press conference in January at which Obama announced Kaine as his pick, both men talked up their desire to find solutions to the nation's problems regardless of party or ideology, an unusual statement for a political-party chair to make. "We are the party of problem solvers and unifiers," Kaine said.

While it is traditionally the role of a DNC chair to take the attack-dog role for the party, Kaine has yet to get his hands dirty. "He doesn't want to be a flamethrower," says a Democratic strategist who works closely with Kaine and the DNC. "Part of it is because he's still in office, but mostly, it's because he doesn't like it. He's not hugely partisan. That's not who he is, that's not what he believes in." On issues like health-care reform, the governor has largely left the tough talk to members of Congress and to Organizing for America, a group spun off from the remnants of Obama's campaign that is housed within the DNC. And the White House has also taken on a more aggressive role than previous administrations. While it was the RNC that handled most of the attacks on what it viewed as unfair media coverage of President George W. Bush, Obama aides have taken on Fox News, Matt Drudge, and other conservative outlets directly, posting items on the official White House blog.

DNC staffers defend Kaine's performance, noting that it is tradition for the president himself to take a more high-profile role when the party holds the White House. While top Obama aides have been guiding the direction of the DNC, Kaine has been spending as much as half a week on the road for his DNC duties, including fundraising and private DNC events, according to travel schedules released by the governor's office. As a result, he's come under criticism for not doing either of his jobs very well in recent months. As Virginia faces rising unemployment and difficult economic numbers back home, Kaine's frequent travel has come under criticism back home. His most recent approval rating among Virginia voters was 46 percent, according Public Policy Polling. "I know people are concerned that he's balancing both jobs, but I've been impressed," says Debbie Dingell, a DNC committeewoman and wife of Michigan Rep. John Dingell. "He's tried to reach out to DNC members, and he's come to Michigan to meet with the party. He's trying."

Kaine has also stayed out of the media spotlight. Unlike other recent party chairs, including the RNC's Ken Mehlman, who was chair when Bush was in office, Kaine isn't a regular on cable TV. With the exception of appearing at a few Organizing for America health-care rallies over the summer, Kaine hasn't given many speeches as his party's leader. A Democratic official says that's because, at the White House's direction, the president usually speaks for the party. A DNC official says Kaine has been concentrating on replenishing the party's coffers in advance of the 2010 elections. "We haven't seen the need to have him out there when his time is better spent doing fund-raising," a DNC official, who declined to be named, told NEWSWEEK.

But, in a criticism that also dogged Howard Dean, some Democrats have questioned Kaine's fundraising. Although, on average, the DNC is outpacing what it raised during the last off-year election, the committee is still only running neck and neck with the RNC, in spite of having access to Obama's fundraising list. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks party fundraising, the DNC has raised $62 million through Sept. 30, compared to the RNC's $69 million. But while the RNC has $19 million in cash and zero debt, the DNC reports $15 million in the bank and more than $5 million in debt. "I understand there is donor fatigue," says a Democrat with close ties to the DNC, who questioned whether Kaine and the DNC were best utilizing Obama's fundraising list. "The mentality is and has been that the RNC will always outraise us. Well, I don't agree." The DNC defends the numbers, noting that its declared money does not include contributions from PACs or lobbyists, while the RNC's number does, and that the economy has had an effect on the party's fundraising. But that hasn't quieted the criticism. "I am not going to tell you it's OK," another DNC member tells NEWSWEEK. "Everybody is concerned about it."

Yet the biggest drama facing the DNC doesn't have much to do with Kaine himself. Privately, many DNC members and state party chairs have been increasingly critical of Organizing for America's role within the DNC. OFA is the former infrastructure of Obama's presidential campaign, and in an effort to keep its 13 million-member e-mail list from going stagnant for four years, the group became what one DNC official describes as a "project" of the DNC—this, even though Obama's coalition included more than just die-hard Democrats. "One of Kaine's biggest accomplishments is overseeing the integration of OFA into the DNC," says Brad Woodhouse, the DNC's communications director.

But several Democrats say the merger hasn't been so pretty. Over the summer, many Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, complained when OFA began running ads paid for by DNC money in Democratic districts pushing lawmakers to vote in favor of the health-care-reform bills working their way through Congress. "It's all about Obama," complains one DNC member. "It's not about other Democrats. And that scares people. What is the DNC for if not to build up the party as a whole? But right now, it's all about Obama." But DNC officials say there is no conflict, telling NEWSWEEK, "What's good for Obama, is good for all Democrats. It helps everybody."

Kaine, says one state party chair, has acknowledged the tensions about OFA, but has emphasized that it is a "value-added" function to the DNC, in that it is helping get more activists on the ground in key battleground states.

In January, Kaine is expected to join the DNC full time and play what advisers describe as a "bigger role" in the day-to-day operations of the party. But depending on how the 2009 elections turn out, that may not be soon enough.

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