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Opinion: Liberal Democrats should stop whining about Clinton’s VP pick

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), on the shortlist of Hillary Clinton's choices for running mate, was seen as a long shot for the slot when then-Sen. Barack Obama made his pick in 2008.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The possibility that Hillary Clinton might choose Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) as her running mate has sent liberals into paroxysms, and not in a good way.

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Which makes me wonder which election they think Clinton is running in.

The primaries are over. Clinton doesn’t have to pander to the left any longer. She has to win in the Electoral College, which she can’t do unless she wins at least a few big states not dominated by pro-tax, anti-gun voters who care more about redistributing income than generating it.

Besides, as The Times’ senior editorial writer Michael McGough is fond of pointing out, vice presidential choices haven’t made much of a difference in years past, at least in terms of election results. Researchers have found little support for any of the treasured nuggets of conventional wisdom, i.e., that it’s important to pick someone from a swing state, or someone who “balances” the ticket, or someone who appeals to (pick one) youthful or female or minority or disaffected voters.

Nevertheless, there’s a lingering belief, well articulated by my colleague Melissa Batchelor Warnke, that Clinton needs a VP who will excite voters, especially those newly engaged in the whole democratic process thingy. This race isn’t about policy details, she argues; it’s more like a high-concept Hollywood movie.

Rather than picking a running mate to shore up her left flank, Clinton has to worry about protecting herself from the full frontal assault to come from Trump.

But what excited liberals about their newly-engaged-in-the-Democratic-Party candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was the policies he detailed. It wasn’t just that he was a white knight taking on the “corrupt” Washington establishment; if that were true, those voters would have been just as happy with Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Instead, Sanders appealed to them because he promised to fulfill liberals’ wish list: providing free healthcare and a free college education, taxing the bejeebers out of the wealthy, mandating a living wage, capping prescription drug costs, increasing Social Security benefits. ... I could go on and on.

His campaign was strong enough to force Clinton to embrace some of his ideas, but not strong enough to beat her. So why do Sanders’ followers think she owes it to them to pick a running mate like him, and not like her?

Sure, liberals could stay home in November, persuaded somehow that there’s no real difference between Clinton and Trump, or unable to rally behind a Democrat they’ve been told repeatedly is more corrupt than Boss Tweed. But there are fewer liberal Democrats than political moderates up for grabs in November. The polls have consistently told that story; despite the enthusiasm generated by Sanders, liberals remain a smaller bloc than moderates or conservatives in the United States.

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Rather than picking a running mate to shore up her left flank, Clinton has to worry about protecting herself from the full frontal assault to come from Trump and the GOP. And no amount of VP charisma is going to be able to deflect that. So she should pick someone who tells voters, to the extent any of them are listening, that she can be trusted with the reins of government.

That is the real issue in this election, after all. Trump, like Sanders, isn’t campaigning on a realistic set of achievable goals; he’s offering the equivalent of the moon, at least from the point of view of Americans frustrated by a slow economy, racial tensions and a global surge in terrorism. And even though many, if not most, Trump voters recognize that he’s pandering to them, they still like the idea of having a bull in the White House china shop — someone who will break things that, frankly, need to be broken.

Clinton can’t outdo Trump’s anti-establishment appeal. Instead, she has to persuade people to support, if not the establishment, then the grown-up in the room. That’s like selling vegetables to a kid who wants ice cream. She can’t hide the fact that they’re vegetables or make them seem more delectable than Moose Tracks. Instead, she has to sell safety over risk.

Tim Kaine screams safety. He has a long resume in the relevant branch of government (as a former mayor and governor). And. at a time of seemingly intractable global threats, he’s had the Senate committee assignments (Armed Services and Foreign Relations) needed to bring him up to speed on issues such as Islamic State, Iran and Turkey. He's been a mainstream figure in a big state that’s fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Yeah, I know. Even Kaine admits that he seems like a boring choice. But picking him instead of, say, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sends a message to the millions of uncommitted voters in the middle (should any of them actually care about the vice presidential nominee) that Clinton isn’t moving any further to the left. If she hasn’t moved far enough in that direction already to satisfy her liberal critics, well, that was an issue for the last round. We’re in a new one now.

jon.healey@latimes.com

Twitter: @jcahealey

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