Jim Webb’s Window of Opportunity

When Democrats needed someone to offer their official, nationally televised response to President Bush’s State of the Union Message in January, the choice was obvious: Jim Webb, the no-nonsense ex-Marine and ex-Republican who’d built his improbable Senate victory two months earlier on opposition to the president’s stay-the-course mantra.

Six months later, they continue to lean on Virginia’s freshman senator, perhaps the party’s most credible voice on military and national security issues. Just last week, Democrats in the Senate kicked off their latest push to force a troop withdrawal from Iraq by showcasing an amendment offered by Mr. Webb, who made the obligatory national television rounds to promote his effort.

Some Democrats have talked up the Virginian as the future of the national party, a role for which the party might be seen as grooming him. In reality, though, his appeal to Democrats is mainly a function of the unusual condition of the current political landscape, with foreign policy­—so often an afterthought in U.S. politics—defining the ’08 agenda. Mr. Webb’s credentials—both his actual job qualifications and his defiant, unapologetic style—are of incalculable value to his party, in a way they probably won’t be come 2012 or 2016. But if 2008 is to be his year, Mr. Webb’s hands are frustratingly tied.

The only plausible circumstance under which Mr. Webb will run for national office in 2008 is if the Democratic presidential nominee selects him for the vice presidential slot. And given all the names that will inevitably enter into that mix and the bizarre mix of political and personal calculations that factor into any presidential nominee’s thinking, that may not seem like much for Mr. Webb to hang his aspirations on.

He would, in some ways, seem to fit a ticket led by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the only two Democrats right now with clear shots at the presidential nomination, equally well.

In Mrs. Clinton’s case, Mr. Webb, who was awarded the Navy Cross, two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for his combat duty in Vietnam, would offer a tough-guy reputation that might assuage any reservations swing voters might have about electing the nation’s first female president. That he hails from Virginia, a probable battleground state far from Mrs. Clinton’s Northeast region, doesn’t hurt matters.

And Mr. Obama, who was serving in the Illinois State Legislature less than three years ago, would go a long way toward easing questions about his own level of experience by entrusting his No. 2 slot to someone who served as both an assistant secretary of defense and as secretary of the Navy—in Ronald Reagan’s administration, no less. As with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Webb would provide geographical balance to Mr. Obama’s ticket.

And that’s not even mentioning what may be Mr. Webb’s top selling point: his action hero image—the straight-shooting military man guided by principle and infuriated by B.S. This is the same man, you may recall, who weeks after winning his Senate election last year bristled when President Bush approached him at a reception and tried to engage him in a conversation about his son, who was then deployed in Iraq. “That’s between me and my boy,” Mr. Webb told the commander in chief, refusing to smile and pose for a picture.

That style is perfectly suited for the current political playing field, when countless Americans share Mr. Webb’s sense of anger over the five-year-old war, even if they’re divided over what should b e done. Mr. Webb could be a reassuring presence to all of them.

Of course, some statements from earlier in his career—about women in combat, for instance—caused him grief in his Senate campaign last year. And earlier this year an aide was arrested for carrying Mr. Webb’s loaded pistol into the Russell Senate Office Building.

If he’d been elected to the Senate a few years earlier, Jim Webb might now be a presidential candidate. Then again, he probably wouldn’t have won a Senate race in Virginia before public opinion turned on Iraq—just as his moment on the national stage will probably pass when this war finally recedes from the front page.

Jim Webb’s Window of Opportunity