On Friday afternoon, Hillary Clinton announced Virginia senator Tim Kaine as her running mate on the Democratic Party ticket. But to the casual observer, she might as well have chosen a home security system to be her right-hand man.
“Clinton-Kaine: the safe choice,” Vox‘s Ezra Klein tweeted. The Wall Street Journal and NBC News assessed Mr. Kaine as a “safe choice.” And partisan media organizations on both sides parroted the message. For the liberal outlet Mother Jones, the Virginia senator “won’t rock the boat,” while the right-leaning Daily Beast headlined its piece on the choice as “Hillary Clinton keeps it safe with Tim Kaine.”
But what exactly made Tim Kaine the vanilla flavor of the veepstakes?
The Virginia senator’s voting record places him well within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Though having professed a personal objection to abortion, Mr. Kaine has maintained a spotless legislative rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. He is rated highly by other liberal groups for his commitment to progressive economic and foreign policies. But as one writer complained, Mr. Kaine just “won’t hugely excite Democrats’ progressive base” the way another candidate might have.
It is true that choosing a relatively moderate vice presidential candidate may dampen enthusiasm among the party faithful. Hillary Clinton has struggled thus far to motivate the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and Tim Kaine’s congenial public persona—unsuited to fiery campaign rhetoric—is unlikely to help her much in that respect. But independents, undecided voters, and moderates—not the party faithful—decide elections, and a middle-of-the-road candidate is better able to appeal to these groups than a hard-charging ideologue.
Yet rather than simply calling Mr. Kaine a “good” choice, we call him a “safe” one, as if Mrs. Clinton would have been better off selecting someone with a little more panache. The word safe is opposed to risky or dangerous, yet when evaluating vice presidential nominees, we conclude that a safe choice must leave something to be desired. For some, Mr. Kaine is almost a letdown. “[H]e won’t be a historic step forward,” Vox‘s Dylan Matthews explained, “But he’s a popular senator from a swing state, and it’s hard to argue he isn’t qualified to assume the presidency.”
What really makes Tim Kaine “safe” is that he is an excellent addition to the Democratic ticket. His experience in government—as governor of Virginia and then as a U.S. Senator—allows Mrs. Clinton to continue advancing the narrative that her ticket is experienced and ready to govern, while the Republican candidates are not. Also, though Mr. Kaine is a solid Democrat, he does not employ the divisive, strident rhetoric of his more partisan colleagues. Choosing someone like Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a figure best known for her spicy brand of progressive politics, would send the wrong message to right-leaning moderates and anti-Trump Republicans, who would see the move as doubling down on a radical liberal ethos. Tim Kaine is an olive branch to these voters, who—though disliking Mrs. Clinton—will at least be able to trust the bevy of political experience which the Democratic ticket has to offer.
This is why calling Tim Kaine “safe” gets it all wrong. Pundits, media personalities, and political talk show hosts speak in these terms because they are risk-seeking. They value risk as gutsy, bold, or principled. But the American people do not think this way when it comes to selecting their commander-in-chief. General election voters are risk-averse, less willing to buy into a radical change than to hedge on the status quo. Yes, Tim Kaine is safe—but that’s what makes him so good.