FAIRFAX, Va. — Sen. Tim Kaine says that with President Donald Trump in office, Americans are in a “living experiment” to see whether or not the Constitution still works to check executive power.
Given the roles that sons of the commonwealth played in crafting the Constitution, perhaps it is no surprise that a Virginia senator would make the case that the relevancy of the document itself will be tested by the 45th president.
Kaine, last year’s running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton against Trump, told a crowd of George Mason University students and staff gathered last Friday that the framers had among their primary objectives preventing tyranny from the executive branch.
“They were used to kings and emperors and monarchs, and they decided they wanted something very different,” Kaine said. “So the whole system was really set up largely to protect against an overreaching executive, and I have a feeling that the next four years are going to be a time of, ‘OK, after 230 years, does this thing still work?’ to achieve the goal that we wanted it to, which was to stop overreach.”
“We’re going to be a living experiment for that. It’s like we’ve taken our car in for the 230-year checkup,” Kaine said. “That’s what this is going to be here for the next couple of years.”
The crowd assembled in a conference room on the campus in Northern Virginia was decidedly diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and religious background. Kaine was there to hear personal stories from students caught up in the executive order that blocked most travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The students addressing Kaine included Najwa Elyazgi, a GMU senior from Libya who was stuck in Istanbul after being barred from a flight back to the United States until federal judges began blocking the order’s implementation.
Kaine told reporters that the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to keep in place the blockade of the immigration executive order emboldened Democrats to keep up the pressure on the Trump administration.
“Our folks see this as a huge win because it’s on a matter of fundamental principle: religious freedom,” the senator said. “Do we welcome immigrants or are we hostile to them?”
“The system worked. A check against overreach,” Kaine added.
Of course, Kaine wishes it wouldn’t have been this way at all. He was last on the George Mason University campus for a rally on the eve of Election Day last November, joined by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
After last Friday’s event, Kaine conceded to reporters that he wished more people had gotten involved ahead of the election that saw Trump carry the Electoral College with room to spare despite losing the popular vote. But he said he was encouraged by people who have stepped up by contacting their members of Congress and attending rallies.
“When they see core values that are challenged by the actions of this administration, they’re going to be engaged. They’re going to say, ‘Wow, politics is kind of important. It does make a difference who’s in these offices,’” Kaine said. “I’m a little bit surprised that people didn’t see how dire some of this was in September and October.”
Kaine attributed some of that to people never really believing that Trump would govern off the platform on which he campaigned, particularly regarding immigration policy.
“Some have been surprised that he did exactly what he said he was going to do. I’m not surprised,” he said.
A cry in the wilderness
Although a loyal Democrat — he is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and was on President Barack Obama’s vice presidential short list in 2008 — Kaine was at times a man crying out in the wilderness during the Obama administration, making the case that Congress should consider a new authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State terrorist group and other terror threats, instead of the current one, which dates to the early days of the George W. Bush administration.
“I do not believe that this president or any president has the ability, without congressional approval, to initiate military action in Iraq or anywhere else, except in the case of an emergency posing an imminent threat to the U.S. or its citizens,” Kaine said in a June 2014 floor speech. “I also assert that the current crisis in Iraq … is not the kind of conflict where the president can or should act unilaterally.”
Although that view did not entirely line up with what Clinton had said in a Democratic primary debate in 2015, the campaign insisted they were on the same page about seeking a new authorization for war.
But Kaine’s daylight from Democrats on authorizing the use of military force might make him a more credible voice in making the case against overreach by the Trump administration, particularly in the context of foreign affairs.
“Somebody was asking me something about, ‘Are Democrats obstructionists?’ I said, ‘Hey, if you don’t like checks and balances, talk to the framers,’” Kaine said last Friday. “There is a system. We have tools under the system we have and it’s for exactly this reason.”