Could that be Jim Webb? Across the parking lot of the Eden Center, a Vietnamese-American strip mall in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, I’ve spotted a smallish figure in a tan ball cap, jeans, and boots, huddled against the bitter cold of an early February afternoon and peering around. Webb’s communications director, Craig Crawford, had told me to meet the one-term Virginia senator under the Vietnamese flag—the old South Vietnamese flag, actually, the bright yellow one with the red stripes. That’s where this fellow is standing. Even as I draw closer, and he waves tentatively, he looks less like a man who might be running for president than an early retiree running errands. But it’s Jim Webb, all right. If there were any doubt, it’s gone once he gets on the phone with Crawford, who has gotten lost on the spidery highways of Northern Virginia. “Where are you?” Webb barks into his phone. “Do you see the Vietnamese flag? What? What are we doing? We’re out here freezing our asses off!”
He shoots me a conspiratorial grin, as if to reassure me that he’s only mock-angry—not flashing the temper that folks in Washington are forever tut-tutting about—then says, “Come on.” He leads the way toward his favorite “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant, the Banh Cuon Saigon. There’s a limp in his gait; he had major knee surgery in early January—a result of lingering wounds from combat in Vietnam, where he served with a Marine platoon nicknamed the “Dying Delta” and earned the Navy Cross, two Purple Hearts, and shrapnel in his skull, kidney, and knee. The red in his hair, which always seemed to accord so well with his impolitic brand of politics, has been losing the battle to gray. But when he doffs his cap upon entering the café—a good Southern boy wouldn’t dare wear a hat inside—Webb looks young for a soon-to-be-69-year-old, sharp-eyed, in fighting trim.
The normally taciturn Webb is in an expansive (for him) mood, though he’s not going to talk about Hillary Clinton; he’s keeping his powder dry, it seems, in case he decides to deploy it. He comes to the Eden Center a lot, he says. It’s close to his house, and the mingled smells from the fish and meat shops and restaurants take him back to Vietnam, where his postwar memories, at least, are fond ones: Webb spent part of the 1990s helping to open up trade with Vietnam, and his third and current wife, Washington lawyer Hong Le Webb, was raised by a family who escaped Saigon the day before it fell. After ordering coffee for himself, Crawford, and me in his fluent Vietnamese, he talks about the trickiness of the language—how “ban,” pronounced with almost un-hearable variations, turns into a whole host of unrelated nouns. “That’s where you get in trouble,” he says. He asks me the question all Southerners must ask each other upon meeting: “Where you from?” And then, pleasantries over, he fixes those eyes on me and asks, with faux concern, “So, what are you gonna do to me?”
He knows perfectly well what I’ve come to do—try and crack a mystery that’s had politicos buzzing with speculation and high humor for months. Pretty much everyone had assumed that Webb’s brief foray into electoral politics was over when he stepped away from the Senate in 2013. But in September, he’d addressed the National Press Club, laying out foreign policy and economic principles that sounded like the makings of a presidential platform. Then, a couple of weeks after the November midterms, he’d posted a low-rent video—just an unsmiling Webb at a desk, in front of a weirdly glowing blue backdrop—announcing that he was exploring a presidential run. Which raised numerous questions beyond, “Is he serious?” To wit: How might a pot-stirring combat veteran and onetime Reagan Cabinet member, who combines Elizabeth Warren’s passion for economic justice with Rand Paul’s itch to reinvent foreign policy, shake up the Democratic primaries? Could an iconoclast like Webb galvanize Hillary-wary progressives? And in the likely event that he ultimately lost the nomination to Clinton, how would his presence in the race change the way she campaigned, or the way she might ultimately govern?
Some pundits perked up at the notion of Clinton having to face a military hero and fiery populist; wise old Washington head Al Hunt wrote that Webb “could be Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare.” Others laughed off the “exploration” as a nonstarter—a one-term senator who detests the nitty-gritty of politics, and especially fundraising, hoping to make a dent in the Clinton juggernaut? Puh-leeze. The Clinton camp didn’t seem to be taking the idea quite so lightly, though; one unnamed aide mocked the cable-access look of Webb’s announcement, dubbing it a “14-minute hostage video,” while staffers of Clinton communications guru Philippe Reines reportedly began plying reporters with salacious excerpts from Webb’s six novels.
Shortly after the video was released, Webb gave a speech to journalists in Richmond, sounding every bit the candidate. “The Democratic Party has lost the message that made it such a great party for so many years,” he said. “And that message was: ‘Take care of working people, take care of the people who have no voice in the corridors of power.’ “
Then he went AWOL. For the next two months, he turned down nearly every interview request, made (and scheduled) no public appearances, and spoke only, and sporadically, through Twitter. The headlines turned from “Worst Nightmare” to (literally, on MSNBC), “What Is Jim Webb Doing?”
What he’d been doing, it turns out, was recuperating from surgery and thinking hard. “Most of these presidential explorations are really campaigns,” says his longtime adviser and friend Dave “Mudcat” Saunders. “Jim’s really exploring, like Ponce de León and all those dudes.” Webb says he doesn’t know when he’ll make up his mind about taking the plunge. (“He’ll just tell us,” Saunders says. “That’s the way it is.”) But he’s been encouraged by the initial response: no money to speak of, but thousands of emails urging him to run, he says, and “more than 1,000 offers of volunteer help.” “If I had to characterize the tone,” he says, “it’s this: ‘Finally, we’ve got somebody who’s talking straight.’ I think that’s what people are thirsting for.”
IN BROAD STROKES, Webb certainly looks like what the anti-Hillary Democrats are thirsting for: a skeptic of military interventionism, and a dyed-in the-wool champion of the less-privileged. No other potential candidate in either party can offer the combination of deep foreign policy expertise and anti-Wall Street fervor that Webb can muster—and he’s staked himself out clearly and consistently to Clinton’s left in both realms.
It could be a potent one-two punch for 2016. Progressives have become increasingly restless with the triangulating “New Democrat” politics that Hillary’s husband ushered in, and are spoiling for a fight over the soul of the party. If they’re to take on the establishment, however, they’ll need someone to carry their message into battle. If the “Draft Warren” movement doesn’t bring her into the race, the two potential Democratic contenders on Hillary’s left wing, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, both come with significant drawbacks—Sanders’s socialism ties him permanently to the fringe, and the former Maryland governor lacks experience on the national (much less international) stage.
Still, if Webb hopes to lead the populist charge, he will have some wooing to do. The progressives who decide Democratic primaries have always regarded him with suspicion—and not just because he’s a white, ex-military, Southern male who loathes “interest-group politics.” His decades’ worth of controversial op-eds and public pronouncements—which have included sharp denunciations of women in combat, affirmative action, ‘60s liberals, and antiwar protesters—have understandably left them wondering whether he can be trusted. Webb’s strong suit is speaking to disaffected white folk; he understands them intuitively. And Webb is more simpatico with the moderate wing of the party on matters such as guns (he loves ‘em). But the issues that will drive Webb’s campaign are the ones that will drive the opposition to Clinton—mainly from the Left.
And so: no money, no organization, no natural constituency—a Webb 2016 effort looks, to the conventionally wise, like the ultimate exercise in quixotism, something no sane politician would consider. Which is basically what I ask him about over lunch: Are you still interested in running? And if so, given what you’d be facing, why?
Webb laughs heartily at the second question. “I’m a better leader than legislator,” he says. “I like to think about things and get things done. Part of it’s the writer in me, where you take a very complex issue, you break it down, and you try to come up with answers.
“People get surprised, because I didn’t run for reelection,” he adds. “But I’ve done this four times in my professional career, where I go into public service for a while and then get out. I think it’s healthy.”
What seems healthy to Webb might strike others as downright strange, but his life’s always been like that. As he recalls in his latest memoir, I Heard My Country Calling, he grew up a military brat in a peripatetic Scots-Irish family with roots in Appalachia (which he proves by pronouncing “roots” as “ru-uts”) and ancestral ties to the Democratic Party. He’d planned to make his own career in the military, but his multiple wounds made that impossible. In the 1970s, he worked on veterans’ affairs on Capitol Hill for Republican Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas. (After he went to work for the Republican, he wrote in one of his books, “one of my favorite great aunts, who when I was young had doted on me, would no longer even let me inside her house.”) In the ‘80s, Webb worked in President Reagan’s Pentagon as assistant Defense secretary and Navy secretary before resigning in protest over the size of the fleet.
He’s filled the intervals mainly with journalism and writing: Webb, who won an Emmy Award for reporting from Beirut for PBS in the 1980s, has written six novels, including the highly acclaimed Fields of Fire, along with three works of nonfiction, and the story for the film Rules of Engagement. For the most part, he says with evident satisfaction, “I’ve never had a salary. Everything I’ve ever done is eat or be killed.” Webb is currently writing and producing the pilot for a “fictional series about Vietnam” on the FX channel, prompting Crawford to quip, “Jim Webb’s checklist: Get major knee surgery, write TV series, think about running for president.”
Crawford’s litany may soon prove one item short; if Webb’s going to be viable, he has to stop thinking and start making some noise. Because if he possesses any political talent, it’s the one that is indispensable for any insurgent candidate running against long odds: an amazing knack for riling people up. And if he’s serious about making a charge at the White House, he won’t sit on that skill for long.
WEBB’S FIRST EXPERIMENT with gonzo campaigning was a smashing success—a late-starting, underfunded challenge to Sen. George Allen, the popular senator from Virginia who was many conservatives’ early pick for president in 2008.
The Netroots had begun to clamor for a Webb campaign in 2005; who better to carry the anti-Bush banner, after all, than a military hero who’d loudly and steadfastly opposed the war? Webb had begun warning about the perils of invading Iraq when he was serving as Reagan’s Navy secretary. In September 2002, with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hard-selling their war plans, he had sounded the alarm in The Washington Post, predicting “30 to 50 years” of occupation and warning that U.S. invasion forces would “quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.” When Webb met with Allen, whom he’d endorsed over Democratic Sen. Charles Robb in 2000, to make his case against the war, he reportedly came away disgusted with Allen’s protest: “You’re asking me to be disloyal to my president.”
Webb says it was Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, in the summer of 2005, that “finally pushed me over” and led him to think seriously about giving the Senate a shot as a Democrat (Virginia has no party registration, so he didn’t have to make a switch). And think he did—for months on end, driving the “Draft Webb” movement batty. Finally, well beyond the last reasonable cutoff date, he gave the word. “We didn’t start out with many advantages,” he says, chuckling at the understatement. “I announced nine months out, with no money and no staff, and we were 33 points behind in the polls. My opponent had just gotten the highest vote for president at CPAC”—the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference.
“I lent the campaign $100,000 of my own money. We were asking people to take a risk. I’d never run for office; I was known as a commentator. I was one of the few people who was able to write for both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I was known as both a writer and someone who had, by that time, spent about 12 years in government service.” If, that is, he was known at all.
In mid-September 2006, soon after Webb’s campaign had turned into a surprisingly viable effort, I rode along for a couple of days as he made his way from liberal, diverse Northern Virginia to the rural, white-and-black Southern Virginia hills. Only a month earlier, Webb had been lagging in the polls; Allen was outspending him 15-to-1. But over the summer, the Republican had let fly an odd sort of racial slur—”macaca”—at a campaign rally, and his subsequent attempts to paint himself as “color-blind” had only dug him a deeper hole. Money had started to pour into the Webb campaign, the polls had turned around, and the combat boots the candidate wore on the trail—his son Jimmy’s, from combat duty in Iraq—were becoming a national symbol of resistance to the seemingly endless Mideast wars. Webb was on fire.
“I think both parties have been taken over by elites,” he told me at the time, over his shoulder from the front seat of his campaign vehicle: a small, camouflage-patterned SUV with “Born Fighting”—the title of his 2004 history of the Scots-Irish in America—emblazoned on the side, and an old Vietnam buddy, “Mac” McGarvey, at the wheel. McGarvey was navigating us toward Alexandria, where a young senator named Barack Obama was set to give his pal a rousing endorsement.
“The natural base of the Democratic Party, working-class folks, looked at both parties back in the ‘80s and saw they weren’t going to get any more help on economic issues,” Webb went on. “The one place they thought they could make a difference was on these divisive social issues, so that’s how they’ve been voting. But I think that has run its course now.” Later, he told me, “If we can get a number of these people to come back to the Democratic Party based on economic populism and fairness, rather than the way they’ve been maneuvered on issues like flag-burning, God, guts, guns, gays—if they can be reached out to with respect, and in terms of fundamental fairness, I think a lot of them will come back to the Democratic Party.”
Webb campaigns for the Senate in Salem, Va., in 2006. (Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)
But even though Webb’s antiwar, anti-Bush message fit the moment like a glove, the campaign presaged some of the challenges he might face in 2016, on a vastly larger national stage. Not surprisingly, Virginians didn’t know quite what to make of a former Reagan official who supported abortion rights. Or a candidate who denounced the war and decried economic inequities—but who also had a long, richly documented history of liberal-bashing. His view on same-sex marriage, meanwhile, was hard to parse: Webb opposed it, but he also opposed a constitutional ban that was on the Virginia ballot that year.
Webb’s stubborn refusal to toe any political or partisan line sometimes leaves him looking like a walking, talking human contradiction—a quality that doesn’t tend to play well in political campaigns. “Webb is often categorized as a centrist,” The Roanoke Times editorialized after his video was released. “That’s not true. Webb simply does not fit neatly into the conventional, two-dimensional left-to-right universe. To understand where Webb is coming from, you have to think in three dimensions, which will be his problem with party activists (and some journalists, as well).”
By 2006, Webb had long since changed his tune about women in combat—the offending article he wrote, all-too-memorably titled “Women Can’t Fight,” had been published in 1979, and he had an impressive track record of hiring and promoting women into combat roles during his Pentagon tenure. But the characteristically strong rhetoric of the piece, when Allen’s camp revived it, planted nagging doubts in the minds of women voters, especially. His running op-ed battle against affirmative action, and his championing of Scots-Irish culture and “Jacksonian democracy,” had the same effect on African-American voters, as well as the white progressive professionals who’d flooded into Northern Virginia and turned the state purple. Webb had been especially effusive in a 2000 Wall Street Journal book review that was widely quoted and wondered at: “Affirmative action, which originally sought to repair the state-induced damage to blacks from slavery and its aftermath, has within one generation brought about a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.”
To add to the confusing wrinkles, this “state-sponsored racism” guy was the same candidate who was making criminal-justice reform a campaign issue—a rarity in 2006—and was out on the campaign stump railing against the over-incarceration of black men and others as a “national disgrace.” Aside from Iraq, everything about Webb seemed overcomplicated, impossible to sort out and categorize. Even his populism had an extra dimension. Where John Edwards was preaching about the “Two Americas,” Webb was saying there were actually three. “We’ve done a pretty good job in this country in terms of the safety net for people who’ve fallen by the wayside; we’re not perfect, but we’ve got good programs,” he explained to me. “The people at the very top, they’re off the charts. The challenge is to make it fair for the people in the middle.”
Ultimately, the ideological puzzle that Webb presented didn’t matter. Virginians may have been confounded by the born-again Democrat, but a vote for him was the clearest possible rejection of Bush’s presidency—and Allen, of course. Webb won narrowly, but his mission to bring his fellow Southern whites back into the Democratic fold had largely been a flop; where Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s “Bubba” campaign for governor had won a majority of whites in 2001, Webb lost them by 24 percentage points—just as Obama would in the 2008 presidential election. Webb’s skin-of-the-teeth victory had come courtesy of African-Americans, single women, white professionals in Northern Virginia, and millennials.
Webb “left the Senate because he doesn’t like the Senate,” says Steve Jarding. “An executive office is different.”
WEBB’S ENSUING SIX years in the Senate taught him one thing above all: He had no business being in the Senate. Webb had come with a reputation in Washington circles—fair or not—as a tempestuous character, thanks to his resignation as Navy secretary (in a huff, it’s said) and his starring role in the bitter debate over Washington’s Vietnam Memorial. (Webb hated Maya Lin’s design, calling it “nihilistic,” and led the effort to install a statue of three soldiers next to the wall.) Before he could even be sworn in, he was giving doubters more ammunition by treading all over the superficial niceties that official Washington thrives on. In late November 2006, according to The Washington Post, at a White House reception for new members of Congress, Webb steered noticeably clear of President Bush, refusing to pass through the reception line or have a picture taken with the commander in chief. When Bush tried to break the ice, asking Webb, “How’s your boy?” Webb shot back: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq.” When the president tried again, Webb curtly replied, “That’s between me and my boy.”
Upstanding Washingtonians like George Will were horrified. “Webb certainly has conveyed what he is: a boor,” the columnist wrote, and then he offered the new senator some advice: “In a republic, people decline to be led by leaders who are insufferably full of themselves.” (Later, after Jimmy Webb came home from Iraq, his father arranged for them to meet Bush at the White House as a gesture of reconciliation. But the loose-cannon rep was already indelibly ingrained.)
Of course, many on the Left relished Webb’s snub of the president. And in January 2007, when Harry Reid tapped the freshman senator to deliver the Democratic State of the Union response, Webb won more admirers. He’d tossed the script he was given and written his own, telling Reid, “If you want me to deliver the State of the Union response, you’ve got to let me write it.” The result was a genuine rarity in that forum: a memorable speech.
“They wanted me to start with Iraq,” Webb recalls. “But I raised economic inequality first.”On January 23, 2007, with the financial crash still 18 months away, that issue wasn’t high on the political agenda. But Webb was determined to smash through Americans’ complacency: “When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did,” he said. “Today, it’s nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day.” It was Webb’s takedown of the Bush administration’s war-making, however, that immediately lifted him onto many Democrats’ list of vice presidential prospects. “We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it,” he said. “But they owed us sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called to pay in defending it.”
Webb was already going full-steam ahead on his first big legislative project, an ambitious new GI Bill that he had drafted before his term began. After 16 months of wheedling, Webb saw his bill pass. The remainder of his time in the Senate, however, was an extended exercise in frustration. Though he voted consistently with the Democrats, he never saw himself as a partisan—and independent-spiritedness has its costs in a legislative body, especially when the parties are bitterly divided. After the Senate approved the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout, Webb tried to pick up the populist mantle and get some money back for taxpayers with a fairly modest-sounding bill: a onetime windfall-profits tax on big Wall Street bonuses. “We came up with a bill which said: ‘If you were in a company that got $5 million or more from TARP and you’re an executive, you get your full compensation, plus the first $400,000 of your bonus, and after that, you split your bonus with the people that bailed you out.’ And people were outraged,” he recalls. The Democratic leadership quietly snuffed out the measure. “That’s the way it went,” he says.
And that’s the way it continued. Early in President Obama’s term, Webb says he advised him strongly that making health care reform his first great crusade would be a “strategic mistake”—it would cost too much in political capital, he said, and the economy needed full attention. (Webb eventually voted for Obamacare, with reservations.) While he mostly lined up behind Obama’s initiatives, Webb again found himself in conflict with the president—and, by extension, with Secretary of State Clinton—over the administration’s response to the Arab Spring, particularly the U.S. involvement in Libya. What, he repeatedly demanded to know, was our guiding strategy in the Mideast?
In 1990, Webb warned against the military buildup in the Persian Gulf at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. (AP Photo/ Doug Mills)
By 2010, Webb was already thinking about getting out. But first he would court a national debate he’d been itching to start for years. Webb had long been citing statistics about the nation’s incarceration rate, telling everyone within earshot, “Either we have the most evil people on Earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.” In response, he introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would have established a bipartisan commission charged with reexamining such issues as the drug war and prison overcrowding. Its findings and recommendations would then have been released in the first comprehensive report since 1965 on the state of criminal justice in the United States.
At first, Webb faced skeptical reactions from Republicans, in particular, who heard “criminal-justice reform” and thought “drug legalization.” But after what an aide called months of “stress, insanity, and gnashing of teeth,” Webb thought he had a sure thing. Every major national law-enforcement group was behind the bill. Republicans Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch were Senate cosponsors; the measure had already passed the House, thanks in part to Republican cosponsor Lamar Smith of Texas, on a routine voice vote. But when Republicans launched a filibuster—with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison calling the bill “the most massive encroachment on states’ rights I have ever seen in this body”—the support he had lined up evaporated. The roll-call vote was 57-43, three votes shy of the supermajority needed to end the filibuster.
The bill, as Webb saw it, had been the very model of what legislation was supposed to be. He took to the Senate floor to vent: “We spent more than four years reaching out to all sides of the philosophical spectrum. We worked with liberals. We worked with conservatives. We worked with law enforcement. We sought the views of many Republicans. And we also worked in close coordination with the other body,” he said. “But let’s speak frankly, Mr. President. In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, and in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, the mood in this historic body has frequently become nothing short of toxic.”
Those weren’t Webb’s last words in the chamber, but they might as well have been. He had already determined that it was time to detox. “One of the things my wife and I discussed was, do you really want to spend the rest of your life in the Senate?” he says. “We just decided no.”
Instead of running for reelection, Webb went off to write his latest memoir. His departure was widely seen as a rejection of politics. But Webb’s friends and allies saw it differently: He was simply rejecting the Senate, and, in his words, the “ornamentations of politics” that it requires. “He left the Senate because he doesn’t like the Senate,” says Steve Jarding, the gregarious consultant and Harvard professor who codirected Webb’s Senate campaign. “An executive office is different.”
WHEN WEBB AND and his tight-knit band of allies dream about 2016, their minds naturally drift back to 2006; if one medium-sized miracle happened, why not a huge one? But this time, while Webb still yearns to woo back disaffected whites, his success in a Democratic primary would hinge largely on his ability to speak to progressives, who are looking for a champion to make the case against Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy hawkishness and business-friendly economics.
That means he’d have to explain to the Left far more clearly where he’s coming from. Jarding notes that Webb had a leg up in 2006 that he wouldn’t have this time: “He had an easy segue into the progressive community, because they were opposed to the war and his opposition was so unique among Democratic leaders that they gravitated toward him. This is a different playing field now. The spotlight’s stronger, and the progressive movement’s stronger. You look at the movement to draft Liz Warren, I think her progressive credentials are more burnished than Jim’s are at this point. The progressive community could embrace her rather quickly. They’re going to have to feel their way through Jim.”
Over lunch at the Banh Cuon Saigon, Webb hinted at how he might try to pitch his economic message more widely in a presidential run. “All the comments I’ve made are intended to be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said. “I think it’s important that people understand that.” His fundamental message about white poverty and affirmative action, he says, is really not all that complicated: “There are people of all races and backgrounds who have similar challenges, and they should be treated similarly.” He paused, stared off in the distance for a while, then wondered aloud: “Is it possible to remake the electorate along true lines of opportunity? I tend to believe [that] approach is the healthiest one for the country, so we don’t have to fall back into these lines of people of color versus people who aren’t of that color. Whatever that means; my wife’s Asian, I guess she’s of color, but I don’t see color when I see my wife.”
Jim Webb, healer of racial divides, father of a new foreign policy doctrine and a new Democratic Party? The very notion will strike a lot of political observers as outlandish. “We love mavericks in this country,” Jarding says, “but for some odd reason, we don’t elect them as president. The American public gets a little nervous about people who think out of the box, and that’s his reputation.” But could Webb put himself in a box—or at least tune his rhetoric to a frequency progressives can hear? He’d have a host of dilemmas to sort out, Jarding says: “How far out do you go, how true do you stay to yourself and not risk alienating the base of the party? It won’t be easy to walk that line.” Knowing the man as he does, he sounds a skeptical note. “Webb’s own history,” Jarding says, “would suggest that he isn’t necessarily one to modify to the moment.”
If he were able to rein himself in, what might a well-packaged Webb accomplish? Jarding is among those who believe he could make himself the candidate progressives are waiting for. We may soon find out; the pace of Webb’s “exploration” is picking up, and the candidate has swings scheduled this spring through (you guessed it) Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Partly from necessity, Saunders says, “this is gonna be a different kind of race”: close to the ground, relying on small donors (“I don’t see the big banks and pharmaceuticals standing in line to give to Jim Webb”), social media, and volunteers—and, most of all, on the candidate’s talent for raising hackles and garnering attention. The production values, like those of the much-derided announcement video, will probably remain low-wattage—which, if the effort generates a spark, will only enhance Webb’s chances of making himself the anti-Hillary, both in style and in substance.
And a spark is all he would need to dramatically change the discussion, win or lose. If Webb gets a hearing—a place on debate stages and some traction in the Twittersphere—he would most assuredly make it count. He could give egalitarian economics their most thorough and forceful airing since (shh, don’t tell him) LBJ, disrupting Clinton’s familiar talk about helping middle-class families and small businesses, and leading her into the thornier thickets of persistent poverty. On foreign policy, says another old friend of Webb’s, Atlantic writer and onetime Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, his impact could be even greater: “Jim Webb could force Hillary Clinton to do something nobody else could: explain her foreign policy views and probably move her to the middle” from the right. Webb, who is constitutionally unable to abandon a cause, would also do his damnedest to push the problem of over-incarceration and excessive drug sentencing into the national—or at least Democratic—conversation. Along the way, with his frank talk and military mien and Southern ru-uts, he might even convince a few more white folk to see the Democrats as something other than a cabal of urban liberals who disdain heartland values.
That’s all without winning. Fallows believes that Webb may be fated to be “a message candidate, someone who runs to advance an agenda more than to win,” and says, “I think he must know that at some level of his being.” Whether he’s aware of it or not, Webb could very well wind up the most consequential loser in a presidential election in recent memory, simply by elbowing Clinton to the left. “I really believe that without Webb in the race, and I’ve told Jim this, there will not be a full and fair hearing of issues related to the loss of the middle class and the whole economic-inequality issue,” says Nelson Jones, a Houston lawyer and longtime ally of Webb’s who was his veterans coordinator in ‘06 and served as his chief counsel in the Senate. By hammering his message about the growing divide between the super-rich and everyone else, Webb could lift the party’s soul-searching out of the blogs and op-ed pages and onto the national stage.
MUDCAT SANDERS HAS a Jim Webb story he loves to tell. Actually, Saunders—the Virginia-based consultant and raconteur who codirected Webb’s 2006 campaign—has a bottomless supply of Jim Webb stories he loves to tell. But this is one he told me in early February: One day, during Webb’s first year in the Senate, Saunders got a call from his old pal Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whom he calls “Senator Give-‘Em Hell.”
“I can’t remember what the issue was, exactly, but he says, ‘Can you talk to Jim and see if you can talk him into this? Would you mind?’ I said, ‘Senator Give-‘Em Hell, you been serving with him now for six or nine months: Do you actually think anybody’s doing to talk Jim into something he doesn’t want to do?’ “
Reid paused for a long time, as Saunders tells it, then finally said, “Well, while I got you on the phone, Mudcat, how you doing?”
The moral of the story was clear enough: If Webb runs for president—and Saunders has been chatting with him regularly about the possibility—he won’t be message-managed, and he won’t do it conventionally. “People talk about him not being a politician—well, they’re right.” Saunders says. “From my personal perspective, I think Jim thinks politics is bullshit. He’s into civics. Politics bore him, and it frustrates him that it completely screws up the end product of good civics. This idea that he’s not a good campaigner—that’s bullshit. Jim enjoys being around people, he does. But as far as the political games that are played and all that, it’s like it bores him. Quite frankly, it’s like he’s above it—he’s above all this political nonsense and bullshit.”
If that is how Webb views politics, it could prove beneficial in 2016, helping to bolster his image as a noncareer politician in a field full of them. Or it could spell trouble. Rather than the hell-for-leather, 2006-style adventure that Saunders and other Webb loyalists hope for, Fallows envisions a Webb candidacy—and, even more, a Webb presidency—as another joyless Senate-style slog. “I’ve spoken with him about the presidential possibility,” Fallows says. “My own view is that he has an extremely remote chance of winning the nomination, which might be harder than winning a general election, and he would probably not like being president. He found even the Senate too confining.”
Fallows chalks it up to Webb’s “writer’s personality”: “He’s a very good writer, and he’s made his living by clearly and, without trimming, expressing his views. That’s something you cannot do as a political leader. Your role is to keep 51 percent of the people with you over the long run. The more sharply you express your views, the less likely 51 percent will agree on anything.” Fallows thinks the White House would be a miserable place for Webb. “I found, from working with President Carter, that the president’s job, through the course of the day, allows virtually zero private time and zero time for reflection. You are making impossible decisions all day, the ones where the choices are bad and nobody else can make them. Plus giving speeches and signing things.”
But beneath Webb’s hard outer shell and his spiky rhetoric, as Fallows well knows, he is at heart an incurable romantic with an old-school sense of patriotic duty. It may sound crazy—it may be crazy—but Jim Webb seems to believe he’s being called to duty one last time. He wants to save America from neoconservative foreign policy and rapacious Wall Street greed; he wants to reinvent the Democrats as a true “people’s party”; and, as he’s tried to do for years in his controversial op-eds, he wants to transform the way Americans think about race, class, and poverty.
For all his pie-in-the-sky tendencies, Webb surely realizes his chances of landing in the Oval Office are slim, and that, if he managed to do so, he might be sorry. But he’s a man who faced down death in the jungle, repeatedly—and who’s been considered politically dead on arrival, too, in a race he managed to win. He may be entering the campaign with a dubious political skill set, trailing a thousand red flags in his wake, but he’ll have the one asset that makes an underdog scary: a total lack of fear. “You say, this guy can’t win, Hillary’s in by all accounts, etcetera—for most politicians, that absolutely matters a lot,” Jarding says. “For Jim Webb, it doesn’t. He’s not going to be intimidated by anything. He respects Hillary Clinton. He knows this is an uphill climb. But that’s not something he frets a lot about.”
Correction: The original version of this story indirectly quoted James Fallows as saying that Jim Webb “shouldn’t run” for president. The article has been revised to accurately reflect what Fallows told the author. Also, this story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Webb, as Navy secretary, was not a member of President Reagam’s Cabinet.
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