Howard Dean, Tim Kaine, Vince Lombardi, and a guy named Phil Bengston
Story by Chris Graham
Politics isn’t unlike football in that respect, which brings us to the curious case of Tim Kaine, the former Virginia governor who was tapped by Barack Obama in January 2009 to head up the Democratic National Committee, a playoff team at the time, to borrow from the football analogy.
The coach that Kaine was replacing was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who pulled himself up from having been the frontrunner who couldn’t in the 2004 Democratic Party presidential nomination race to basically being the man responsible for rebuilding the DNC from the ashes of two stinging White House defeats on the wings of his controversial 50-state strategy. In the process Dean established himself as a sort of Vince Lombardi of the Democratic Party, the party’s triumphs in the 2006 midterms and the 2008 Obama win in the presidential race being his back-to-back Super Bowls.
Tim Kaine is the guy who replaced Lombardi, who in football was a guy named Phil Bengston. You won’t remember Phil Bengston because Bengston’s Green Bay Packers were 20-21-1 in his three seasons after Lombardi’s back-to-back Super Bowls.
You’re likely not going to remember Kaine’s run as DNC chair after the 2009 gubernatorial election cycle and what we can glean about what we’re going to see from the 2010 midterms from the Massachusetts specal-election triumph of Scott Brown in the race for the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat.
“It’s natural to blame the national party chair when you have a string of defeats,” University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Isaac Wood said. The party chair, fairly or unfairly, is “often the sacrificial lamb when things aren’t going well for the party,” Wood said.
As with the football coach on the proverbial hot seat, it’s not always the fault of the party chair. “Tim Kaine didn’t run Martha Coakley’s campaign. Tim Kaine doesn’t control the agenda that the Democrats pursue in Washington. And those are the two factors that turn out to be most important,” Wood said.
A struggling football coach can keep the fan base sated by inspiring confidence of a turnaround on the horizon. Kaine, unfortuntely for him, hasn’t been a favorite of the fan base from day one. Dean, for his part, was a favorite of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Kaine is far from being the darling of the progressives, Christopher Newport University political-science department chair Quentin Kidd said, “and his problem being party chair is, you really need to be a hardcore partisan,” KIdd said.
“Howard Dean has this really strong partisan streak, and nobody doubted it, and would really push Democratic candidates and Democratic officeholders and Democratic grassroots supporters, really push them, Kaine doesn’t seem to quite do that,” Kidd observed.
Which begs the question – if Kaine was more like Dean, or if Dean himself had stayed on after the Obama victory, would things be different today than they are? “I don’t think it would matter who the DNC chair was. I think Democrats would be in a situation they’re in now no matter who the chair was,” Kidd said.
But it would feel different with the rah-rah Dean at the helm, “and that’s where the problem lies,” Kidd said.
“There’s a big question people have about Tim Kaine. What is his imprint?” Kidd said. “It’s really tough coming on the heels of Howard Dean, whose 50-state strategy, whether it worked or not, seemed to work. Obama competed in all 50 states, said he was going to, and did, and he did so after Howard Dean said, We need to compete in all 50 states, and that’s what I’m going to do as DNC chair. What is Kaine’s big initiative? I don’t know the answer to that question, and I don’t know that anybody does.”
Football fans remember Lombardi’s power sweep and of course the apocryphal “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” motto that is attributed to him. Honestly, had you even heard of Phil Bengston?
Kaine’s saving grace, according to Wood, is his close relationship with Obama, and the apparent unwillingness of the Obama team at this point to throw more red meat to Republicans, which is what sacking Kaine before the midterms could effectively do.
“For Democrats right now, they need to convince everyone that Rome isn’t burning. And the best way to do that is to stay the course, so to speak, and keep everything the same as it’s been,” Wood said. “If they change the course on health care and dump Tim Kaine, it’s going to be admitting going into the midterm elections that the Democrats have lost their way. So they need to be careful about sending that message.”
It’s not likely to turn out as bad for the Democratic Party as it did for the Green Bay Packers. After the run of mediocrity under Bengston, it took another 25 years for the Pack to get back to the top of the NFL heap. Permanent majorities in Washington only last 18 months in Washington these days.