Kaine Embraces Obama Anew -- Thanks to Va. GOP

Kaine Embraces Obama Anew -- Thanks to Va. GOP

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 27, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. -- In a speech to young voters here over the weekend, former Virginia governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine waxed poetic about working to elect the president four years ago.

"I've won seven elections already, but nothing, nothing, was as sweet, nothing was as meaningful, nothing was as important for the commonwealth, for the country and for the world," Kaine told the hundred or so gathered at a youth summit sponsored by Obama for America.

Kaine sounded sincere. Moreover, he sounded quite happy to be running on the same Democratic ticket as Barack Obama in November. That’s a demonstrable change from just a couple of weeks ago, when Kaine publicly pleaded with the White House to moderate its stance on a key feature of the health care reform law, and took the unusual step of openly disagreeing with the man who had tapped him to head the Democratic National Committee.

So what happened that enabled Kaine to so warmly embrace the president again?

Ironically, conservative state lawmakers have buoyed Kaine’s relationship with Obama. In his weekend speech, the former DNC chairman pointed to controversial state legislation regarding abortion rights and women’s health to highlight his concerns about a Republican winning the White House: “We're seeing what going backwards is like, and there ain’t a single thing about backwards that interests me at all.”

An early supporter of Barack Obama in the last cycle who co-chaired his national campaign, Kaine is a tempting target for Republicans, whose plans to win control of the Senate rest on tying Democrats to the president and his policies.

But given the Republican Party’s rightward stance on social issues -- intensified in recent days by events in the Virginia General Assembly -- Kaine can more comfortably support Obama these days. Now, issues once thought to be a liability for Democrats might actually work in their favor.

Recently, Kaine found himself in an awkward position when the Obama administration spelled out a health law mandate requiring religious employers to include contraception coverage in their insurance plans. A devout Catholic but also pro-choice, Kaine said he supported the mandate but asked the administration to either broaden exemptions for religious institutions or explain how these groups can comply with the law without compromising their beliefs.

Bowing to the outcry -- echoed by other Democrats -- the president amended the rule by shifting the cost of contraception coverage from the employer to the insurance company, allowing women access to birth control even if their employers objected. (The move hasn’t won over religious institutions, however.)

Kaine applauded the accommodation -- to the delight of Republicans, who could again pin him to the president’s unpopular health care law. “This is an issue of the government overriding the First Amendment and dictating to religious organizations that they must provide services which are contrary to their deeply held beliefs,” said George Allen, Kaine’s likely opponent in November. “. . . Tim Kaine believes Obamacare is a ‘great achievement.’ I believe it ought to be repealed.”

Both sides have framed the contraception mandate to appeal to their respective bases: Democrats say it is about women’s rights and Republicans see it as a matter of religious freedom. The issue has come to the fore in the presidential primary, and all of the Republican candidates have attacked the president -- unsurprising, of course, since each has pledged to repeal “Obamacare” in its entirety. But somewhere along the way, the GOP lost the battle of public perception and now must reconcile its position with the widely held public desire for continued access to contraceptives.

The polling appears to be on the Democrats’ side. A Quinnipiac University survey found that more than half of American voters -- 54 percent -- approve of the Obama accommodation while just 38 percent disapprove. The breakdown between key voting blocs is telling: 56 percent of women and 56 percent of independents support the revised mandate.

Republicans’ health care argument is still salient, however: The poll found 50 percent of voters want the U.S Supreme Court to overturn the law, while only 39 percent wish it would remain in effect. The GOP has framed health care not only as an issue of government overreach but also as one of economics. Republicans argue, for example, that regulations alone place taxing burdens on employers that consequently deter them from hiring workers.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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