Tim Kaine is the junior United States Senator representing Virginia, where he has served since 2013. Previously, he served as a member of the Richmond City Council, as Mayor of Richmond, as the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia under Gov. Warner, as the Governor of Virginia, and the Chair of the DNC. Kaine also served as the Vice Presidential candidate during Hillary Clinton’s run for President in 2016. Kaine is currently running against Corey Stewart for a second term in the US Senate.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in April 2018, before the death of Sen. John McCain and before the announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court.
Alex Hendel (Interviews Editor, Virginia Review of Politics): Thank you for sitting down with us today. First question: if a Supreme Court vacancy were to arise in the latter half of a Trump Presidency, what should Senate Democrats do regarding the nomination process. If Democrats obtain a Senate majority in 2018, should they unequivocally block Trump’s nominee (similar to the strategy Senate Republicans took following the nomination of Merrick Garland)?
Senator Tim Kaine: What the Republicans did with Merrick Garland, both maintaining an artificial vacancy for a year to thwart President Obama, and then changing the vote threshold around the Supreme Court to get Justice Gorsuch confirmed was without historical precedent, and truly wrong. That said, I don’t think you can announce what the rule should be about a hypothetical nominee. The most important thing about a nominee is, would it be somebody who I would want to vote for in terms of offering advice and consent. So I don’t have a uniform rule about that except that I’m going to scrutinize very carefully every nominee. I scrutinized Justice Gorsuch carefully, I had very significant concerns about some areas of his jurisprudence, I voted no. But that was based on the merits of what I thought of him on the court. It wasn’t based on anything about Merrick Garland.
AH: But would you commit to not retaining an artificial vacancy for over a year?
TK: I think I’ve already answered that. I’m gonna consider a nominee when the nominee is made, and the primary decision will be who the nominee is and what they might bring to the court. There might be somebody nominated who I think would be great. In that case, why maintain a vacancy?
Jackson Samples: You’re in line with most Democrats in believing that it’s not the role of government to interfere with women’s reproductive decisions, even though you’ve noted a personal faith-based opposition to abortion. How does this way of formulating your political beliefs – namely, holding political positions contrary to your personal opinions – apply to other political issues such as capital punishment? Can policymakers ever simultaneously hold personal and policy positions that are contradictory?
TK: Absolutely. The oath that you take is to uphold the Constitution. So Catholics don’t have to cross their fingers when they take that oath. You have to uphold the Constitution, and the Constitutional right of women to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions, which is basically two key cases. Griswold said women can make their own decision about contraception, and then Roe said women can make their own decisions early in pregnancy about abortion. That is the law. I pledged to uphold the law.
I also think this is less about comparing this to other kinds of issues, but there are a lot of issues in the faith space. The central tenet of my faith is belief in Jesus Christ. I would never pass a law compelling people to believe in Jesus Christ. We have rules in the Catholic Church about divorce. I follow those rules, but I don’t say we should pass those rules for everybody, including a non-Catholic. We believe things about tithing – you shouldn’t force people to tithe. Anybody who is a practitioner of a religious faith, the religious has the right to ask them “live this way,” but I don’t think the religion has the right to say, “and legislate our church’s rule for everybody who worships differently.” In fact, I think that impacts the first amendment. The first amendment says you have the right to freely practice your religion, and the State can have no established religion. So you don’t take the doctrines of one faith and make everybody have to follow. That would be the way I approach that issue.
AH: Do you think abortion is an issue that risks driving many Catholics away from the Democratic party?
TK: I think in the Catholic Church, views on abortion are pretty much consistent with what the American public’s are. People think it’s a very important moral issue, and they grapple with their own thinking. But I think the opinions of Catholics, and even the practices of Catholics with respect to contraception and abortion are pretty much in line with the American public as a whole.
AH: [In April], Mark Zuckerberg in front of the Senate and Congressional Judiciary Committees. It seems apparent that there’s a wide disconnect between many Senators and comprehension of new technology – including the digital economy, Facebook, etc – especially since many Senators don’t have a background in technology (most have backgrounds in law). Do you believe that our policymakers, especially at the national level and including yourself, have the ability to make informed decisions about issues like this?
TK: I don’t think I do personally, but that’s why you have fantastic staff, that’s why you have hearings to hear from experts. You would not want a Congress to make a decision about Facebook regulation without having hearings, for example. I think if there was to be grappling with whether there should be some regulation to curb some of these abuses – I mean when Facebook allowed so much data to be taken by Cambridge Analytica and others, I think they violated a trust they had with their customers, their users. I don’t think they’ve fully been make accountable to their users for that. There has to be accountability. Deciding what the right rules are though would require an intense about of hearing from key people who understand technology and folks who care about privacy. But that’s the way we do everyone. If we’re going to do a banking bill, if we’re going do the Affordable Care Act, we get hospitals, patients. You make law not by yourself being the expert, but if you do it right, it’s opening it up and hearing from all perspectives before you move to decisions. Before there would be any regulation of Facebook or similar social media platforms, we would need to hear from the best of the best.
AH: What steps are you and your staff taking to understand new technologies. For example, online data collection, artificial intelligence, self driving cars, etc?
TK: Just, reading and hearings. I am not on Judiciary or Intel, but in Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Health, Education, Labor, Pension, we do a lot of work that helps you grow in the learning curve on this. Again, before you’re going to legislate on something in particular, the right way to do it – and we do this on the Armed Services committee especially: every year we write a defense authorization bill, but before we do we have three months of hearings about every region of the world, every combatant, commander, diplomatic issues. So we prep it before we do it. If we were to regulate in particular about it, we would do the same thing.
JD: You were a cosponsor of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act –
TK: Yeah, our banking bill.
JD: – a bill that would change many aspects of the US financial system. One key provision of the bill is the exemption of banks with assets valued at less than $10 billion from the Volcker Rule, which prohibits banking agencies from engaging in predatory lending practices. Some critics argue that this bill would leave the average American at risk during another financial crisis, and that the bill’s benefits would be disproportionately felt by wealthier Americans. Do you believe these critics are wrong?
TK: I do. I think they’re wrong, although any bill is going to have good and bad pieces to it, so you grapple with what you think the right balance is to strike. Here is the problem that I’m trying to address that led me to be a cosponsor of the bill. During the fiscal collapse, Virginia lost one bank. Since Dodd-Frank passed, we’ve lost 35% of our banks. That wasn’t the intent of Dodd-Frank, but in trying to stop the “Too Big to Fail” problem, there’s been an unintended consequence of actually accelerating “Too Big to Fail.” The banks that we’re losing – there are not many that are just going bust – they’re small banks, and they don’t have the ability to comply with the new regulations, so they say “okay, well we’ll sell out to a larger bank.” If you lose all the small banks, you’re basically creating a too big to fail scenario, and you’re dramatically reducing the ability of people to have options to get credit. I hear from people all the time who don’t think they have enough options to get credit (for small business loan, and ag[ricultual] loan, and home loan). So, this was a bill that, as Barney Frank said – since he was the main guy behind Dodd-Frank – he said this bill preserved 90% of Dodd-Frank and adjusted about 10% of it. Every bank in the United States will be significantly more regulated if this bill passes than before Dodd-Frank. It’s just that some of the extra regulation we put on will get phased based upon the size of the institution and the risk of their behavior. I think it is appropriate to phase the extra regulation that way, and I believe our system will be a safe system, but it will be one where this “rolling-up” of these small banks into the large banks will be slowed down. I think that will help. That’s why credit unions, and women- and minority-owned banks strongly supported the bill.
AH: On Capitol Hill you’ve been a vocal proponent of the White House needing additional Congressional approval for any sort of military intervention abroad. Do you see any revision of the War Powers Act, or the authorization for use of military force coming soon? What specific changes would you like to see?
TK: On the War Powers Act – War Powers Resolution from 1973 – Presidents and Congresses haven’t followed it. It’s sort of viewed as, probably not completely constitutional, for a variety of reasons. But Presidents don’t follow it, and Congress doesn’t either. They follow half of it. The President will give notice to Congress when they are taking action, but the act itself says basically that you give notice, and if Congress hasn’t said yes within 60 days, then you’re required to stop and withdraw over the next 30 days. No president does that. So the act needs to be rewritten. The Miller Center proposed in 2008 a War Powers Consultation Act to take the place of the War Powers Resolution. Senator McCain and I introduced that, and we’re trying over time to convince people to realize that we can replace a flawed bill with a better bill. The more immediate challenge that we’re involved in is – I’m working with Senator Corker of Tennessee, who is the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, to rewrite the 2001 authorization, which is used to justify all the military action against non-state terrorist groups all over the globe. It has been a blank check for the President. Anywhere, against anybody forever is basically what the current blank check gives the President the ability to do. Senator Corker and I have written a bipartisan resolution to repeal the 2001 authorization and to put more constraints – that we think are reasonable – upon the current US military action against non-state terrorist groups. It replaces the blank check with more limitations. The limitations aren’t so tight that we think we’re intruding upon the role of the president as commander in chief. I’m also mindful that I have two Republican houses and a Republican president, so I have to try to write something that can get Republican votes and then not be vetoed. We’re working in a sweet spot, and we’re likely to have committee action on my bill in the next three weeks.
AH: You just mentioned your work with Senator McCain. What do you see as the future of bipartisanship in the Senate.
TK: It needs to happen more. More happens than you think, but not enough as should happen. The reason I say more happens than you think is that things that are cooperative tend not to be newsworthy. Conflict is newsworthy. Cooperation isn’t. So there are a lot of things that have happened, a lot of bills that have been passed, that are cooperative and don’t get a lot of attention. But on big things: healthcare, war powers, there’s a lot of big issues where it’s hard for there to be enough bipartisanship. One of the goals that I’ve taken on for myself is that I’m not in party leadership, I’m not a committee chair. The way I try to make a mark in the Senate is by trying to be a bridge building with the other side. Most things, like my banking reform bill, or my bipartisan bill with Senator Corker on war authorization, I negotiated a deal with Lindsey Graham on DREAMer protection. We couldn’t get to sixty votes but we got the most votes of any of the bills on the table. I am always trying to find areas on which we can work together.
AH: President Trump won one third of the counties that President Obama won in 2008 and 2012. Many of his votes in swing states were in largely working-class areas. Several Democrats, like former Vice President Biden, and Senator Sanders have argued that Democratic performance among working class voters needs some work. What do you think about the narrative that Democrats have lost touch in working class areas, and do you think Trump voters had legitimate disaffections that the Democratic Party hasn’t addressed?
TK: You’re going to have to ask Trump voters that, but I’ll answer the first two parts of your question. I don’t think we’ve lost touch with working class voters. My whole political career has been in Virginia, and we have actually really been on an arc in Virginia, from very, very reliably red, to battleground, and really now trending blue. So we’ve actually been picking up support during the time that I’ve been in politics since 1994. Especially since 2001 since I got into state politics, we’ve been really advancing. Hillary and I won Virginia pretty handily. However, your question “is there more work to do?” – the answer to that is yes because if we go into – especially some parts of rural Virginia – Democrats perform very poorly. I think we have some good strategies and plans. I think those strategies and plans are every bit as good as what the Republicans put on the table to help rural Virginia. But we haven’t been doing that well in voter turnout. I don’t think we’ve lost touch in terms of good policies. But I do think there’s some areas where we should be doing better. It’s a mixture of policy and presence. I think policies matter, but even if you have the right policies, if you’re not present, they don’t necessarily think you’re really serious. So I think policies and presence are important. That’s definitely easier to do when running in one state than when running in fifty states. If you’re running in fifty states for president, you can’t go everywhere, but if you’re running in one state, you can actually be present in rural, urban, suburban. You can go to the really blue areas but also the really Republican areas.
AH: Thank you so much for your time.