Hillary Clinton's running (to the right) mate

If liberals were surprised that Clinton picked a running mate like Tim Kaine, they need to think again, writes Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History.

Hillary Clinton and Tim KaineHillary Clinton and Tim Kaine

AS SOON as word leaked last week that Hillary Clinton would choose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, social media and Internet news sites began filling up with statements of disappointment from liberals.

Norman Solomon, the long-time independent journalist and a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the Democratic convention, had earlier warned that picking Kaine or another "centrist" candidate like Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "would be a very pronounced middle finger to the 13 million people who voted for Bernie."

Indeed, it was obvious from the carefully staged "rollout" of Clinton's vice presidential pick in Miami that Kaine was, as Solomon wrote, "a loyal servant of oligarchy." As Solomon continued, developing the hands and fingers metaphor further: "If Clinton has reached out to Bernie supporters, it appears that she has done so to stick triangulating thumbs in their eyes."

A month before, National Nurses United (NNU) was the chief sponsor of the People's Summit in Chicago that brought together various liberal forces that had backed Sanders in the Democratic primaries. With many militant and confident speeches, the conference projected itself as a harbinger of future progressive change in the Democratic Party.

Yet on the eve of the Democratic convention, as the liberal infrastructure prepared to rally around Clinton and her choice for vice presidential running mate, it seemed as if the People's Summit hadn't even happened. In a statement, NNU Co-President Deborah Burger said:

Hillary Clinton could have sent a strong signal to the millions of people who voted for moving beyond decades of neoliberal policies that have produced massive inequality in wealth, employment, health care and education, as well as racial and gender disparities and an escalating climate crisis. Selecting Tim Kaine sends the opposite message, continue to accept the status quo and lower your expectations for real change or a future we can believe in.

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SUCH STATEMENTS illustrate the dismay that liberal Democrats feel about the choice of Kaine. But for Hillary Clinton, picking Kaine as her running made perfect sense--and was entirely predictable.

Kaine is a standard-issue center-right politician--although in the warped American political system, he's considered "center left"--with a resume that includes terms as mayor of the Virginia capital of Richmond, governor of Virginia and U.S. senator.

Anyone worried that he isn't a "warrior on terror" will be reassured by his record on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees--and the fact that his son is a Marine. He can't be accused of being environmentalist as a loyal supporter of fracking and offshore oil drilling, as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other neoliberal economic deals. He played a key role in shepherding Barack Obama's deal with Iran over its nuclear energy program through the Senate.

Kaine is "bipartisan" to the core--he can even count reactionary Texas Republican Ted Cruz among his Senate buddies. In fact, more Republican senators seemed impressed with Clinton's selection of Kaine for her running mate than they did with their own party's presidential nominee Donald Trump.

On abortion, Kaine holds the characteristic views of a conservative Democrat: he states that is personally opposed, but promises not to seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. As governor, he implemented abstinence education and adoption counseling, two priorities of the Religious Right.

Still, if progressives found plenty in Kaine's record to criticize, other parts of the liberal establishment--for example, Democratic officeholders and the media commentators at MSNBC--repeated the Clinton camp's attempt to portray Kaine as a "progressive who gets things done."

They played up his earlier career as a civil rights lawyer, his support for immigration reform and his fluency in Spanish, his 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood on his Senate voting record, and his support for various gun control initiatives.

But in reality, Kaine, like Clinton, embodies what the Democratic Party is really about: A pro-business party whose liberalism mainly revolves around "equal opportunity" and an image of multiculturalism.

Compared to the monochromatic hatefest on display in Cleveland the week before, the fact that the Democrats "look like America" can be attractive to millions. But the party's core commitments to free-market economic solutions have been central in undermining the living standards of millions of "working Americans"--most of them women and people of color--for whom the Democrats pledge to "fight" at election time.

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WHICH BRINGS us back to the pro-Sanders forces. They have good reason to be disappointed in Kaine. But they really shouldn't be surprised.

If they truly thought that Clinton would, in a gesture toward progressives, choose someone like liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as her running mate, their illusions in the Democratic Party are bigger than their disillusionment now.

And Sanders, in choosing to run for president as a Democrat--and to insist that a large vote for him could launch a "political revolution" inside the Democratic Party--has to be held at least partly responsible for this.

Why so? Consider the character of the apparatus that Sanders had to navigate.

The Wikileaks dump of Democratic National Committee e-mails doesn't prove that the DNC cheated Sanders of the nomination. But it shows that the DNC was in the tank for Hillary from the start. And to repeat the point, if that latter point comes as a surprise to Sanders supporters, then they weren't clear about who they were dealing with.

Hillary and Bill Clinton are central figures in a party apparatus built around Clinton-Obama "centrism." The fixtures of that apparatus have based their careers on being "realists" standing against the "unrealistic" demands of Democratic base groups, such as labor and civil rights organizations. And they've proved those commitments again and again.

As Thomas Frank shows in his recent book Listen, Liberal! Clintonite attacks on Democratic constituencies in the service of free trade and "welfare reform" became a badge of honor to show capitalists and establishment media ideologues that the party was truly dedicated to burying the New Deal.

"As for those [liberal] interest groups themselves, [Bill] Clinton knew he could insult them with impunity" as president, Frank writes. "They had nowhere else to go, in the cherished logic of Democratic centrism."

Much of Clinton's case against Sanders--when she actually engaged him directly--was based precisely on characterizing goals like health care for all as pie-in-the-sky dreams.

Because someone like Warren is a symbol of the aspirations of Democratic base voters--to break up the big Wall Street banks, for example--Clinton would never have seriously considered choosing her. Her campaign cynically dangled Warren's name in the media, along with that of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, but some reports indicate that Clinton was focused on the Wall Street-friendly Kaine more than a year ago.

Now, liberals are warning that a Clinton-Kaine ticket could dampen their ability to get younger, pro-Sanders voters out to the polls in November. They could be right about this. But they're probably more worried that Kaine is another reason for those voters to come out to vote--and pull the lever for the Green Party's Jill Stein instead.

Clinton and the rest of the Democratic establishment are counting on the threat of a Trump victory to be the chief motivation for millions of people to choose Clinton. They will therefore feel even less pressure to give millions of people a reason to vote for Clinton-Kaine.

On the contrary, the Democrats will resist this throughout the campaign. Not only will they want to avoid being pinned down to "unrealistic" proposals, but they'll also want to show "moderate Republicans" and major corporations why they're the "safe" choice in November.

So don't expect to hear much, if anything, about expanding Medicare to cover more people under a government health program, to cite an issue made popular by Sanders that Clinton gestured toward while she was lining up his endorsement.

If this is the trajectory of the Democratic campaign in the fall, then Sanders supporters will become the latest group of people to learn what the African American revolutionary Malcolm X meant when he said: "Put the Democrats first, and they'll put you last."