What Picking Tim Kaine Says About Hillary Clinton

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and vice presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine take the stage at a campaign rally in Miami, Florida on Saturday. Brian Snyder/Reuters

"He's a progressive who likes to get things done!" Hillary Clinton had the pride that all new presidential candidates have when they introduce their nominees. She was in Miami, making her first joint appearance with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine since naming him to be her running mate. With the cheerful manner of a friendly high school principal, Kaine wowed a crowd prepared to love him, using his impeccable Spanish, ripping into Donald Trump.

Clinton has made plenty of bad decisions in her life. She admits regretting her vote for the Iraq war and admits not calling it a mistake in 2008 only compounded the error. She pushed a health care plan in 1993 and 1994 that couldn't galvanize Democrats, let alone Congress. But it's unlikely she'll regret choosing Kaine.

The decision to choose the civil rights lawyer and long-time officeholder says a lot about Clinton, how she incorporates what she learns, how she sees the world.

Even though a bunch of names have been bandied about for her vice president over the past few months, she was never going to choose someone who was inexperienced in politics and governance like, say, the much touted Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who served on a county council in Maryland. In Clinton's life in politics she's seen that the seasoned vice presidents have done well—Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Joe Biden—have made their mark on the office. The less seasoned nominees during her lifetime—Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, Spiro Agnew, John Edwards—have faltered. Clinton insiders knew she'd take someone with long governmental experience like Kaine or former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. The others were feints although insiders say she's dazzled by Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator whose raw political skills and courage to take on liberal orthodoxies on education reminds her of her husband and herself.

People who thought she'd pick Elizabeth Warren were impossibly off base. It's not just because she lacked much electoral experience. Clinton values loyalty, perhaps too much, which is why she's been surrounded by many of the same aides for a generation. A prickly critic of the Obama administration on many fronts, Warren was too much of a gadfly for Clinton to embrace as her running mate. Like Al Gore or Joe Biden, Plain Kaine is not going to have sharp elbows. He's ambitious but preternaturally disposed to wait his turn.

Anyone who thought Clinton would pick a Bernie Sanders-style liberal or a minority were also wrong. Clinton's formidable political education came during the 17 years she spent in Arkansas, from her 20s to her 40s, from 1974 to 1992. Being a liberal and a Democrat in the Reagan era in the South meant understanding that this is a center-right country, where progress comes slowly and people's cultural hot buttons can't be pushed at all. It's historic enough, she knows, for the first woman to lead a major party in the U.S. without adding a second woman or a minority to the ticket. More change than that in the form of an African-American running mate and a bachelor like Booker would have been too much.

Some progressives are grumbling about Kaine. He's been a consistent supporter of legal abortion but he signed a bill limiting so-called partial birth abortion among other things and like many Catholic Democratic politicians, including Joe Biden and famously before him, Mario Cuomo, he has said he's personally opposed to abortion while favoring its legality.

Democratic U.S. vice presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) hugs his wife Anne after being publicly introduced as Hillary Clinton's running mate. Scott Audette/Reuters

But these progressives miss the point about Clinton. She is tactical, willing to move left during the primaries and right for the general election. Her critics dub that as soulless, gutless. But if you see the world as Clinton does, it's what you do to get liberal causes advanced in a country that's slow to bring along progressively and where—in her view—the forces of reaction are lead by a Republican party that is willing to criminalize differences from Whitewater to impeachment to Benghazi. By picking Kaine, Clinton picked a liberal with enough conservative touchpoints—moderate on abortion, a son in the Marines, hailing from a purple state—to get her elected and not make any unforced errors that might come from picking a combustible Warren or an untested Perez.

Clinton also has a lot of respect for sheer governance. She knows how hard it is and admires the craft, the art of getting re-elected and the art of getting bills passed into law. People who have managed to do it over and over again like her husband come as close to making her swoon as she can get. That's why Kaine's hat trick of being a mayor, senator and governor—one of only 20 in American history—weighed heavily with her. She was never going to choose a Palin or Agnew, each low-population state governors who were only two years into their first term when they were tapped at a time of national crisis.

One of the ironies of the veep selection is that Kaine and the courtly Mike Pence will become , much more popular than Clinton and Trump. They don't have the unprecedented negative poll numbers that hinder the top of the ticket. But while Trump dithered about selecting Pence and reportedly regretted it, preferring a Roman Candle like Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie, Hillary will never regret Plain Kaine, her kind of guy.