The main narratives since Virginia Senator Tim Kaine was announced as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee have been that Kaine was a low-risk, low-reward choice, that he is sure to disappoint former supporters of Bernie Sanders, and that he was chosen as someone who could govern without overshadowing the Clintons.
I don’t want to take apart those arguments, but for me, Kaine’s selection was a bit of welcome news in seemingly endless campaign filled with bitter and divisive language. For me, there is a lot to like about Tim Kaine (and not just that he is a fellow University of Missouri graduate, though that’s certainly worth something). Given my interests, much of this has to do with Kaine’s approach to issues that affect US-Latin American relations.
Here’s why I am happy with this choice.
- Kaine sees people from Mexico and Central America first as foremost as people. Not as threats. Not as some plague to be evicted and excluded. Not as pawns for political rhetoric. But as human beings, many of whom live in difficult circumstances and are forced to make difficult choices. This shouldn’t be controversial, but evidently it is. It is not a policy position, but it at least seems to be something that one should keep in mind when making policy.
- Kaine clearly gets the need for humane immigration reform (see point 1). He seems to understand that immigration is also foreign policy, and that in our relations with Mexico and Central America, is at the top of the agenda from the perspective of foreign leaders. If immigration is treated as a US-only issue, our foreign relations suffer. Giving a floor speech entirely in Spanish might have been a bit of political theater, but it was also an important way to signal to Spanish-speakers in the US and across Latin America that they have a right to participate in a conversation that affects them even if the political decision might be out of their hands.
- Broadly speaking, Kaine cares about Latin America. This is often credited to his experience in Honduras as a young man. This resonates with me, as a Midwesterner whose formative experiences in Honduras created a lifelong interest in Latin America and in US policies that affect the region. The coincidence is part of why I have paid attention to Kaine for the last five or six years. On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has done a lot of work on issues like Central American corruption, crime, and economic development. These are not big vote-getters or donation-drivers; they are issues a senator only tackles if he cares. Likewise, Kaine seems to have an understanding of the region (and foreign policy more generally) that appreciates that the United States needs to employ a broader set of foreign policy tools than it often does.
- Kaine understands the importance of trade. On the left and right, some people’s main knock on Kaine seems to be his support for various trade deals, and here I part ways with critics. Not all trade deals are created equal, but trade is a net positive. Yes, it creates sectoral economic dislocation, and this is a serious challenge (though for the large US economy not nearly of the the same magnitude as technological advancement). Both of these factors are and should be shaped by policy. But going back to point 3, Kaine seems to grasp the importance of trade for the U.S. role in the hemisphere and the world. NAFTA was no panacea, but it solidified a positive relationship between the US and Mexico that was almost unthinkable two decades before (though evidently not irreversible). Plus, US-Mexico trade is less about low-cost imports than it is about joint production and value chains. It’s not perfect, but we live in a world of imperfect policy options. The system of global trade plays a fundamental role in creating regional and global public goods, maintaining networks of asymmetrical relationships, and sustaining the broader global order that has benefited the US tremendously since 1945.
- Finally, Kaine seems to have a reputation as a good person who treats his colleagues and his staffers with respect. I doubt anyone gets to these heights of US politics completely unsullied, and I am sure there will be many attempts to dig up dirt. But his reputation is for respect and hard work, not for intrigue and scandal. That’s a welcome prospect.