Why Kaine Should Refuse Democratic Response

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 19, 2006 · 1:30 PM EST

National Democratic leaders are looking to newly-elected Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia to deliver their party’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union speech at the end of the month. But if Kaine wants to help himself, he should take this tremendous opportunity…and decline the invitation.

Democrats believe that on the heels of his victory in November in a Red state, Kaine is the perfect messenger for their themes of change, while pointing out the downfalls of the Bush Administration and the Republican leadership in Congress. (Read more in Roll Call and the Washington Post)

But, Kaine wasn’t elected governor of Virginia by demonizing President Bush. And in his swearing in ceremony just last weekend, he said his administration would “be a non-partisan, Virginia agenda that includes all.”

Becoming the point-person for the Democratic Party in a nationally-televised speech doesn’t match the definition of non-partisan, even though he may deliver a softer, less partisan speech than other responses in the past. And by becoming a face of the national party, it hurts his ability to stress his own background and values that helped him get elected.

While the opportunity to address the nation is tempting to any politician with a pulse, Kaine may have more to lose than he has to gain.

The response to speeches like the State of the Union is already a dubious task for the out-party. The President will have all the trappings and applause of addressing the entire Congress, while Kaine will likely have a lonely bookshelf and a half-dozen American flags in the background.

Even though people on Capitol Hill and political junkies know who Tim Kaine is, (helped by Virginia’s proximity to Washington, D.C.) the average American will have no idea who he is. And while Kaine has obvious appeal to citizens of his own state, his ability to credibly respond to the President on national security issues will be a major question mark.

Kaine may embarrass his party’s leadership in the short term by declining the opportunity, but the truth is, he doesn’t need them. He just got elected and he can’t even run for reelection in 2009 because of the state’s laws. And if he has higher aspirations, there is plenty of time to smooth over any ruffled feathers.

Kaine could take this opportunity to show his independence from a national Democratic Party that is more liberal than he is, send a signal to Republicans in Virginia that he is serious about working across the aisle, and potentially increase his star power even more.