The thing that drives Republicans craziest about Barack Obama is that they can see it coming. They know that behind the dulcet intonations of togetherness and unanimity lies a politician whose beliefs are uniformly liberal. Over time, they suspect, the smooth talk will give way to everyday politicking. But will it be before Barack the President will shows himself to be something entirely unlike Barack the Candidate?
Recent events in Virginia provide a cautionary tale about what can happen when a smooth politician with liberal instincts is elected by a center-right populace. In 2005, Tim Kaine ran for Governor of Virginia against Republican Jerry Kilgore. The rural-accented Kilgore ran well ahead in polling for most of the race against the smooth, Harvard-educated Kaine. Kilgore ran as a reliable conservative, while Kaine attempted to portray himself as a thoughtful moderate.
But toward the end of the race, the dynamic changed. Kaine began spending freely and called in the big gun: popular Gov. Mark Warner. Kilgore’s lead evaporated almost overnight. Kilgore went on the offensive and attempted to show Kaine’s moderation as nothing more than a façade for his deep-seated liberal instincts. Most memorably, Kilgore attacked Kaine for his longstanding opposition to the death penalty.
Kaine’s response was as surefooted as it was smooth. Kaine insisted that his opposition to the death penalty was a purely personal thing that grew from his strong Catholic faith. Kaine insisted that as governor of the state he would follow the law as written and the death penalty would be carried out.
It was brilliant. Not only did it neutralize the charge effectively — “you have nothing to worry about if you’re a death penalty supporter” — it allowed him to talk about his faith and his time as a missionary in Honduras. This boosted many churchgoers’ opinions of Kaine, and neutralized one area of weakness for many Democrats. Moreover, it made Kilgore’s attacks look unnecessarily personal and petty. Kaine won by five points.
You can see the same defense being raised by the Obama campaign in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright scandal. Obama’s argument is that Wright is a misunderstood man of God who helped bring Obama to Christ. Obama doesn’t agree with everything Wright says — indeed if there’s anything remotely controversial in Wright’s teachings, Obama is quick to distance himself from it — and casts this as nothing more than a misunderstanding. Conservatives suspect that Obama may in fact harbor more allegiance to Wright’s political views than he lets on (who stays at a church where a pastor rants “G-d damn America!”?), but find themselves unable to convince voters of this.
The parallels in the Kaine story do not end well for conservatives, or for the two-thirds of Virginia voters who support the death penalty. While Kaine initially kept his word on the death penalty, he vetoed five bills aimed at expanding the death penalty to include, among other things, the killing of judges and the killing of witnesses. He vetoed a bill to allow juries to apply the death penalty to more than just the person who actually pulls the trigger. “I don’t think we need to expand capital punishment in Virginia to protect human life and keep people safe,” the Washington Post reported Kaine as saying. “It’s just that simple.”
Kilgore noted that he was unsurprised, and bemoaned Kaine’s emphasis in the general election that his personal beliefs would not interfere with his political beliefs. “He’s been an activist in the anti-death-penalty movement. He should have just come out and said it [during the campaign] and had a fair debate.”
Now, Kaine has gone one step further. In response to the Supreme Court’s pending ruling on the permissibility of lethal injection as a method of execution, Kaine suspended all death sentences in Virginia. This is something that he promised he would not do.
Convicted cop-killer Edward N. Bell will now continue to live on death row. Kevin Green, who is on death row for killing a convenience store owner in cold blood likewise received a longer lease on life.
Kaine used the Supreme Court’s pending ruling as an excuse for this step, but in reality it is a fig leaf. Although Kaine has allowed four death sentences to be carried out, he had previously delayed several other death sentences. And, as opponents of Kaine have noted, the Supreme Court’s pending ruling does not prohibit the use of the electric chair, Virginia’s alternate method of execution.
The frustrating thing about this is not that Kaine is opposing the death penalty — even some conservatives oppose its use. It is the easily foreseeable pivot on the issue that Kaine executed given his first opportunity. Conservatives likely will face similar pivots from Obama if he takes office. His calls for moderation and consensus will likely evaporate into policy prescriptions that are unlikely to be supported by many voters. Some could be reversed by later Republican Presidents but some will be difficult to turn around, especially Supreme Court appointments.
The key, then, is to avoid the mistakes made by Kilgore. Rather than attacking Kaine on his personal beliefs, Kilgore should have turned those beliefs into political issues: Would Kaine fight for a death penalty in the face of hostile Supreme Court precedent? Would he support an expansion of the death penalty?
If Republicans are unsuccessful in framing Obama’s personal liberalism in political terms, they will likely be in for a very long four years.