Nearly two years into his first term, Virginia’s junior senator, Timothy M. Kaine, has eased into his role as a leader on foreign relations and military affairs, a role that he did not necessarily seek when he ran for the office in 2012.
“When I was a candidate, I certainly talked about our military as a huge talent pool that we need to take advantage of as people transition into civilian life,” Kaine said in an interview Friday. He had returned from his most recent trip to the Middle East, which took him to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Qatar, followed by a short visit to India.
“I wasn’t aware that our committee assignments would take me so significantly into military and foreign policy issues. But I have been very, very excited to do that.”
As a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees and chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees the Middle East, the Democrat has been especially engaged in the issue of war powers — an issue of increasing relevance amid national security threats posed by militant groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
At the Public Square at the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday, Kaine will speak about his ideas for strengthening the War Powers Act and a future military strategy in response to radical Islamic terrorism.
Kaine has been vocal about his views that the expanded U.S. military operations against the Islamic State in Syria are not covered under existing authorizations from Congress.
“I’ve had this long-standing interest in the war powers question and the decision-making process that Congress and the president undertake to determine when to initiate military action,” Kaine said.
20 years of service
The conclusion of his second year in the Senate also marks Kaine’s 20th anniversary in public service, which began in 1994 when he was first elected to the Richmond City Council.
The native Minnesotan, who is married to Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton, has since worked his way up the political ladder, serving as Richmond’s mayor from 1998 until 2001, followed by one term as lieutenant governor and then as governor from 2006 until 2010.
For two years, Kaine also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, where he flexed his fundraising skills that likely helped him defeat Republican George Allen, a former governor and senator, in the 2012 Senate race by 53 percent to 47 percent.
A changed Virginia
In his two decades in public service, Virginia has “changed dramatically,” Kaine said.
“Our economy has gotten much more dynamic. Our social milieu has gotten a lot more inclusive and more competitive. I would say that Virginia, politically, has moved from being kind of in the wings to the center stage with the spotlight on,” he said.
“Economically, I do think we have become kind of a model for other states in a way we haven’t been for a very long time,” Kaine said. “The changes have been very significant, and they have put Virginia in the leadership position that we were in from 1776 until the 1840s.
“Then there was a long period where we were not so front and center, but I think we’re back. That is very exciting, and it is a tribute to a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”
His job in Congress is “hugely different” from being Virginia’s chief executive, Kaine said.
“They often say that governors are very unhappy when they go off to the Senate, because when you’re a governor you’re used to being in the top of whatever your pyramid is,” he said.
An expertise job
When Kaine arrived in Washington in January 2013, he was 95th in seniority.
“Being a senator is very different from being a mayor or governor,” Kaine said. “Executive jobs have a lot of headaches but also a lot of joys to them. A Senate job is an expertise job. To be a happy senator, you pick a few areas that you’re passionate about and you try to make your mark in those few areas. You pick a great staff that’ll help you cast wise votes on everything else.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Kaine has made a solid impression in the Senate in his short time there.
“He’s smart, a quick study and personally pleasant. This is not a bipartisan era where Republicans and Democrats work together on much, but he’s made friends with some GOP senators and tries to establish a bit of common ground with them,” Sabato said.
Kaine’s committee assignments have helped him carve out a niche.
“The more expertise I develop, the more my colleagues will rely on me in these areas and the more I can accomplish,” Kaine said.
And by focusing on military issues, Kaine remains on firm ground, Sabato said.
“Virginia arguably depends on the military more than any other state and, while Virginia has moderated in many ways, it is still somewhat hawkish,” he said. “Also, there aren’t many people sympathetic to ISIS or the Syrian government to be found anywhere. There’s no real risk here.”
Kaine’s interest in war powers is also an area where bipartisan agreement is possible, because few want any president to be unchecked as commander-in-chief, Sabato said.
“We still haven’t found the correct balance of war powers, though Congress has been grappling with this topic since the Vietnam War.”
In January, Kaine teamed with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to craft the War Powers Consultation Act that would strengthen the consultative process between Congress and the president on whether and when to engage in military action.
To Kaine, bipartisanship is a necessary tool for successful legislating.
“When you set up (a government with) three branches with checks and balances, and you set up a bicameral legislature where virtually everything has to get through two houses, you are basically establishing a system where compromise is the blood of the organism,” Kaine said.
Without a willingness to find common ground, the whole system does not work, he said.
“My two years in the Senate has made me think that maybe in some states that are really blue or really red, a willingness to compromise and work together is not seen as a strength. But in Virginia, it’s what our voters expect,” Kaine said.
Kaine made the shortlist of potential vice presidential nominees in 2008 after throwing his support behind then-candidate Barack Obama early in the Illinois senator’s campaign.
Sabato said that if former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton runs in 2016, she would probably need to pick a prominent 2008 Obama backer to preserve party unity.
“Tim Kaine fits the bill,” he said.
But Kaine does not want his May endorsement of Clinton to be seen as a bid for the vice presidential nomination.
“Secretary Clinton is probably going to run, but I don’t know it for sure,” he said. “In 2008, I didn’t do anything intentionally to be considered, and I didn’t have any control over whether I was picked, so the best thing to do is do a great job at what you’re doing, and you can’t worry about something you don’t have any control over.”
Instead, Kaine is looking forward to what he hopes will be many years in the Senate.
“I can see being a senator for a very long time,” Kaine said Friday, adding that he aspires to be like former Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican.
“I don’t think I would ever, even under the best of circumstances, get to the 30 years that John Warner did. But he’s kind of my role model on this.”
Warner, term after term, used his expertise and seniority for the good of the nation and for the good of Virginia, Kaine said.
“That’s the model I am trying to follow,” he said.