Well, it’s semi-official: Jim Webb has formed an exploratory committee to run for President in 2016. As I’ve written before, while I don’t rate Webb’s chances particularly highly, I think it would be highly salutary for Clinton to face a serious challenge, generally and on foreign policy in particular.
But is that the debate we’ll get?
Webb’s campaign is going to be severely under-funded, and Webb himself is going to start out of the gate a terrible campaigner, so it may be that Clinton will simply ignore him and we won’t get any debate at all. But if she wants to make him instantly irrelevant, the last thing she’d do is engage him. Rather, all she – or, rather, her surrogates – need to do is to position him as a culture war conservative, someone who is at best iffy and at worst outright hostile on women’s equality, gay rights, affirmative action, immigration, and so on down the line. Once that becomes the story, that will likely be the only story – the only one that matters, anyway. And then, either he sinks without a trace or, if he gets a little bit of traction, it’ll be another story about how culturally conservative working class whites who rejected Obama are rejecting Clinton as well. Which, in turn, will further facilitate their consolidation as a GOP voting bloc – precisely the opposite of what Webb intends to achieve.
So what can he do to make it more likely that he is read as challenging Clinton on foreign policy and economic policy primarily, which I believe is what he wants?
I think – and I admit, I’m in danger of committing the pundit’s fallacy here – that he needs to get out in front of this kind of positioning with counter-positioning.
He can’t simply disavow his past positions on these issues – first of all because in some cases he still believes them (in other cases, not), and second because that would vitiate a primary source of his appeal as someone who actually stands by what he believes. Rather, he needs to make it clear that he’s not running on them – that, in fact, he’s in part running against them as organizing principles of our politics.
He needs to say, in effect, that he used to be a Republican because the GOP seemed like the party of people like him: a Scots-Irish military man. But when he left the GOP, it wasn’t just because he’d decided its policies were wrong – though they were. He also left because he no longer was willing to respond to that kind of appeal, an appeal to identity. Because that appeal made it hard for him to see the ways in which the GOP’s actual policies were detrimental to ordinary Americans.
Heck, he can quote Thomas Frank if he likes. The point of saying all this is to say further: and I didn’t join the Democratic Party in order to adopt a new identity, or to keep fighting the culture war but now from the other side. There are issues, he can say, on which my views have changed. And there are issues where I respect that my party and I don’t agree 100%. And there are also issues where I will try to convince my party to change. (For that matter, there are issues where Webb didn’t need to change to be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party – like abortion – and issues where Webb is more liberal than many Democrats – like penal reform and executive power.) But I am not running to make the Democratic Party more appealing to people who look like me, or who have my cultural background. I became a Democrat because I realized that the Democratic Party already held the best promise of standing for ordinary Americans, and for rejecting the kinds of policies, foreign and domestic, that have done them so much harm. And I’m running for President to make sure the Democratic nominee keeps that promise.
And then he needs to make the case for a new foreign policy and a new economic policy, in each case organized around husbanding and building up American strength rather than taking it for granted while frittering it away.
Webb is never going to be the great progressive hope – and that’s fine. Indeed, it’s better than fine. It’s better for Clinton to be challenged on foreign and economic policy by a Jim Webb than a Bernie Sanders. People who aren’t the usual suspects might just listen. But he needs to avoid being defined by the cultural signals he gives off. Otherwise, instead of opening up a vital conversation about policy, he’s going to wind up making it just a little bit easier for the GOP to avoid that conversation altogether.