It’s No Time to Give Up
For Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), failure is a powerful motivator.
Losing the presidential election was “bitterly disappointing,” he said. “I was a civil rights lawyer for 17 years, and the things I worked for my whole life are now at risk, but I have not lost hope,” said Kaine, speaking to a capacity crowd at Tufts on Jan. 23 as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.
“Our history is that we make advances, and then often those advances get a backlash—[but] the backlash never goes all the way back,” he said. “We can keep pushing, because we are going to make things better. Look, the activity over the weekend—the march in Washington—that is a tribute to the strength of our democracy.”
Tufts students, he said, are fortunate that the university offers ample opportunities for civic engagement. He urged each of them in the audience to “put yourself out on a limb for the issues you most care about. . . . Put yourself into that space with a grassroots advocacy organization and find a connection between that and the political process.”
Kaine’s faith in the democratic system—and his recognition of the need to balance advocacy with patience and often compromise—is rooted in his Midwestern upbringing. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and credits public schools and a Jesuit high school there with fueling his interest in serving others. While at Harvard Law School, he took a year off to work alongside Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. “I just had a still, small voice in me that said I should try to do something for others,” he said, “but also learn what I wanted to do.”
After law school, he settled in Richmond, Virginia, working as a civil rights lawyer specializing in fair housing law. Then he decided to run for city council. He went on to serve as Richmond’s mayor and then the state’s lieutenant governor and governor.
At Tufts, Kaine responded to wide-ranging questions about foreign policy, religion, the future of the Democratic Party, and music—he played the harmonica on the campaign trail—from students and event moderator Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College.
Asked about his experience as Hillary Clinton’s running mate, he was good-humored. “It was a wild and surreal ride, and all but the last two hours were great,” Kaine said, drawing a laugh. “I used to say I was undefeated in elections. Now I say I was undefeated in the popular vote,” he said as the largely student audience erupted in applause.
Differences of Opinion
As for what Congress can do to unite a country deeply divided by party loyalties, Kaine called for more civil rhetoric.
“One of the worst parts about the campaign was that it . . . led a lot of people to question whether there were norms anymore” about how people talk to and about each other, he said. “We almost don’t allow for reasonable differences of opinion these days.”
He called Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech the “best speech in the English language” and one that should serve as inspiration for contemporary political discourse. “If anyone could have given a triumphant speech, it was Abraham Lincoln in March 1865,” Kaine said. “But it was a very reflective, spiritual speech,” he said, specifically Lincoln’s closing words that urged the nation to strive to heal so that all might achieve a “lasting peace.” The final paragraph of that speech, he said, begins with these words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .”
Lincoln’s words are profoundly relevant today, said Kaine. “You can be firm in your position and not have malice toward those who don’t agree with you. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk, [but] that’s what I think we have to do.”
He also called for a new, comprehensive national security strategy, noting that the United States hasn’t had a global strategy since the Soviet Union collapsed. “Let’s take on the role not of being the world’s sole superpower,” he said. “Let’s try to be exemplary of democracy as a democratic role model—and there are things that don’t make us exemplary right now. . . . But I think the role we should play in the world is to be an exemplary democracy”—to be powerful “not by force, but by example.”
When a student asked about the future goals of the Democratic Party, Kaine responded that while the party is “remarkably unified” around social issues and tends to root for the underdog, its economic message is “muddy.” He notes that people want the rungs on the economic ladder more clearly defined so they can see themselves advancing.
He ended on an optimistic note, drawing on the story of the Good Samaritan, which he told often on the campaign trail. “Why do people walk on by and not help?” Kaine said. “In the story, the Samaritan is the despised minority who has someplace to go, too,” but he stops to help. “I believe that expresses something about the Democratic Party,” he said, describing it as a message that can be reclaimed.
“All you need is the instinct to say, I’m not going to walk on by. I’m going to go over, and then I’m going to figure out what I can do.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.