Jim Webb is running for president. Or at least he is the first prominent Democrat not named Hillary Clinton to take a serious step in that direction. Does it matter?
Perhaps those criticisms gave short shrift to Webb’s legislative work on behalf of veterans. He was certainly above average on foreign policy and civil liberties. And despite writings that clearly marked him as a temperamental if not ideological conservative, it was probably never realistic to expect Webb to govern as a Pat Buchanan Democrat or antiwar Zell Miller. Nevertheless, his Senate career seemed like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s—much more partisan and less interesting than his writings—only shorter.
Yet all Webb’s tendencies that annoyed me when he was in the Senate might actually be assets as a Clinton primary challenger. Webb supported the major planks of President Obama’s domestic agenda, so it is difficult to paint the former Reagan Navy secretary as some kind of Republican interloper. He was also a staunch liberal on issues like abortion and gay rights, something that would complicate any efforts by Team Hillary to use his more culturally conservative literary work to portray him as a reactionary troglodyte. Webb is a committed economic populist, while Clinton clearly represents the Goldman Sachs wing of the Democratic Party. Webb followed up being right on Iraq when Hillary was wrong with prudent opposition to military interventions even Obama has embraced.
Webb was an opponent of the Libya war, which he pointedly notes was not authorized by Congress. In the Senate, he pushed to require such authorization concerning any preemptive war on Iran. Webb is also a skeptic of the Arab spring. He calls the situation in Syria “Beirut on steroids,” recalling advice he heard from a Marine in Lebanon in the 1980s: “Never get involved in a five-sided argument.”
But it is impossible to look at Webb’s longstanding serious interest in national security or his resume—a Naval Academy graduate, a Marine who served with distinction in Vietnam, a Navy Cross, Silver Star medal, two Bronze stars, two Purple Hearts, and five years at the Pentagon—and dismiss him as some kind of naive peacenik. His son fought in Iraq and he campaigned wearing his combat boots. Like the neoconservatives, Webb gravitated to the Republican Party over his disgust with the George McGovern Democrats and the counterculture. He returned when those same neoconservatives pushed the GOP too far to the opposite extreme.
Nor has Webb lost his interest in the Scots-Irish forebears who inspired his seminal book Born Fighting. In the letter announcing his exploratory committee, Webb laments the plight of the inner city where you “see the stagnation, poverty, crime, and lack of opportunity that still affects so many African Americans” while also “poorest counties in America–who happen to be more than 90 percent white, and who live in the reality that ‘if you’re poor and white you’re out of sight.’”
Webb might be able to snatch white Democratic primary voters away from Clinton in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, where they turned out in droves against Obama. The model for a Webb presidential campaign might not be his fights with Republicans, but his 2006 battle to win the Democratic senatorial nomination in Virginia.
During that race, Webb faced Harris Miller, a former lobbyist who had previously chaired the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. Miller was a fairly conventional Democrat, a mainstream liberal with ties to his party’s deeper pockets and who wasn’t particularly animated by antiwar or civil libertarian causes. (Sound familiar?) He attacked Webb’s more conservative writings and past Republican ties. But Webb captured the grassroots’ imagination as a fighter, a populist, and a passionate opponent of a war most Democrats wanted to see come to an end. He was also able to attack Miller’s support for replacing the American workforce—in a debate, Webb dubbed Miller the “Antichrist of outsourcing”—without appearing to demonize immigrants.
Miller had more money and local Democratic endorsements (although many national party leaders correctly thought Webb was more likely to pry the Senate seat away from the Republicans). Webb ended up getting more votes in the primary.
Could history repeat itself? The coalition that narrowly defeated Hillary in the 2008 primaries relied on a supermajority of black Democrats attracted by Obama’s historic candidacy. Given the current state of the party, it is hard to see Webb replicating that or replacing these voters with working-class whites. Webb is a poor fundraiser, gruff personality, and stiff campaigner. Clinton will have much more money and will probably try to marginalize him as thoroughly as Mike Gravel. If Webb breaks through, the Clintonites will bombard him with opposition research, taking long-forgotten passages from his writing out of context.
If Webb and Rand Paul could provide a one-two punch alternative to the neoliberal to neoconservative foreign-policy consensus in Washington, however, it might just be worth it.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?