Tim Kaine understands the problem of hyperpartisanship that President Obama is facing in Washington. As governor of Virginia for four years, Kaine dealt with strong opposition from Republicans in the state legislature. But Kaine, now starting his second year as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (he left his term-limited job as governor in January), argues that the polarization in Washington is much worse than what he encountered. In an interview with U.S. News, Kaine discussed the mood of the voters, prospects for healthcare legislation, and other issues. Excerpts:
What are the prospects for healthcare legislation?
The Dems have a huge need to make this thing happen, and I feel good about the fact that we will. It's taken some time because, look, if it was easy this would have been done. A lot of presidents have tried it. A lot of Congresses have tried it. Haven't been able to. We do feel like we're in this final march to making the bill happen now. This is a big, heavy lift, and I think a lot of what people worry about in Washington is whether we're capable of doing the big, important things these days, and I think the passage of this bill will show that Dems can do it.
If a final bill does pass, how do you defend and promote it?
I think it gets a lot easier for us. When there were [different versions], the other guys were able to make up all kinds of things that were not in any of the bills. But it was hard to disprove with a lot of different moving pieces. So this bill passes, then there are immediate deliverables that Americans start to see—protection from some of the worst insurance abuses; parents can keep their kids on their policies until they're age 27; seniors get assistance covering prescription drug costs in that "doughnut hole" in Medicare; small businesses get tax cuts to help buy insurance for their employees. People will see those. What they won't see are "death panels" suddenly rearing their ugly heads, we won't see rationing of care, we won't see the government telling us we can't have our doctor. All the bogeyman arguments that were created—if this bill passes, they immediately go up in smoke.
How do you assess the mood of the voters?
My sense is that economic anxiety means electoral volatility. [The voters] want to see people [in office] who are about getting results. I think they want to see leaders who are focused on issues that matter most to them. Our goal here at the DNC is to work closely with the president on his agenda for change.
How bad is the partisanship in Washington, and why have the Republicans opposed President Obama so consistently and so strongly?
When I talk to people outside the beltway, I don't think people are that divided. I think people expect our leaders to work together. It's a time of national urgency. But what I see on the other side is, on matters of policy they stand in resolute opposition—and not just matters of policy. So when the president wants to speak to schoolchildren on the opening day of classes, which is a normal courtesy that other presidents have enjoyed, they speak up, many of them, against that. I can't read what others' motives are. All I can say is we are doing the heavy lifting of governing. You're going to see this president continue to reach out to invite and even challenge the other guys to be part of governing, to include their ideas. But at the end of the day, if they want to just be obstructionist or stand in the corner, we still have to govern boldly, confidently, and optimistically because that's the position that the American people have put us in.
How can the polarized atmosphere be improved?
Atmospheres tend to be tough when times are tough, so, OK, there is volatility, there is anxiety. The better things get, that may lighten the mood a little bit and lift the spirits a little bit, and maybe that will enable some folks to start reaching out and working together. My worry is the other side has decided, "Look, if the president succeeds, that hurts us politically, so even if he is doing the right thing, we kind of have to just get in the way because he'll get credited with the success and we won't." I worry that that's the cynical calculation, and I saw this to some degree in my state [as governor]. People will pay a price for putting political obstruction over progress in a time that is so critical and urgent.
What effect will the negative political environment have on President Obama when he faces re-election?
It's heavily tied to the economy, so the direction of the economy, which I think is a positive one, that is going to improve the situation for him. And not just the economy. You have other issues, too. A lot of arrests of key Taliban leaders in Pakistan in recent weeks—that happens because of the administration's smart diplomacy with the Pakistan government. We had zero combat deaths in Iraq in December, and that's a pretty big deal. A number of these tough, intractable problems from a year ago are starting to get better, and if we keep at it, I think the climate is going to get a lot better.
Do you sense an increasing impatience on the left over healthcare legislation and troops in Afghanistan?
Our biggest virtue is that we're a big tent, and sometimes our biggest challenge is that we're a big tent. We've got folks who are all over the map. But I think our people are pretty practical.