Is it too soon for a “Webb for President” bandwagon? Of course it is. But Webb’s landslide win in a Southern state—well, make that a pre-recount third of a percentage-point win carved from big margins in the Washington suburbs—has transformed him instantly into a commodity of interest for the Democrats, as was former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner before him. A national audience will now become aware of the Webb paradox: the qualities that make him most compelling are the very ones that make him not a particularly smooth or natural politician. Despite Webb’s impressive military background, it’s not as if he commanded armies in a winning war. No one will offer Jim Webb an Eisenhower ride to a higher nomination.
My own Webb bandwagon moment occurred in late September at a fundraiser in Northern Virginia. The candidate arrived, slightly late, while a suburbanite audience awaited the chance to shake his hand, size him up. He worked the room for a few minutes, our host introduced him to me, and he stopped for several minutes to converse about a Paul Schroeder essay that had appeared in TAC. This was thrilling, of course, and it’s impossible to imagine any other major-party candidate (even among the coterie of TAC readers in the House GOP) who would have behaved the same way.
As an aide shuffled impatiently, Webb shifted into a more normal politician mode, greeting the people gathered. Then he stepped up to address the room. It was an odd speech, devoid of enthusiasm-generating applause lines, indeed devoid of any applause lines at all. It was almost professorial—an attempt to analyze the categories of Left and Right in the country, explain why they were outmoded and how his campaign was working towards transcending them and fueling a new synthesis. You had to pay attention or you would miss major points.
I found myself recalling a phrase I had first heard in history class about the French socialist Leon Blum—“an intellectual in politics.” Webb was attempting to give voice to common-man themes of the sort that might be inspired by the Scots-Irish of his critically acclaimed ethnography, Born Fighting, and to appeal more generally to the American middle and working classes. But if it was a latently populist message, it was delivered in distinctly non-populist style.
Webb’s intellectualism ensures that he will do something that professional politicians hardly ever do: think through a position and take a public stand on it without consulting the polls. The essay he wrote for the Washington Post on Iraq, seven months before the war began, was startling in its prescience. Webb questioned whether an overthrow of Saddam would “actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism” and pointed out that the measure of military success can be preventing wars and well as fighting them. He charged, “those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade.” He concluded, “the Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. … In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.” If any major senators were thinking like this long before the invasion, not many Americans heard of it.
Peter Boyer’s New Yorker profile of the Webb-Allen contest noted that Webb spent much campaign time lamenting the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of the country, noting that he regularly pushes for stronger border security and strict enforcement of laws that will stop corporate exploitation of cheap illegal-alien labor. Webb adds that “free trade is not fair trade” and is open in his disdain for the neocons: “These guys are so far to the left you think they’re on the right. It’s right out of the Communist International—exporting ideology at the point of a gun.” Concluded Boyer: “He almost seems a Pat Buchanan conservative.”
This is not really true, in that most Buchananites, and especially including my McLean, Virginia-based colleague (who has kept his own counsel about his vote last Tuesday) are serious cultural conservatives, for whom Webb’s pro-choice position and other more typical Democratic social-issue stands are likely or potential deal-breakers.
But it may be true that no successful politician is doing more to shatter the post-1960s categories of Left and Right than Webb is trying to do. If the present results hold, the Old Dominion has given us a vastly more complex senator than the oleaginous George Allen and perhaps its most interesting emissary to the upper chamber since the 19th century.