What Jim Webb Is Worth to Obama

Now is the season for idle vice presidential speculation, and this year the field of potential nominees in both parties is unusually large.

Among Democrats, much of the chatter is understandably focused on Hillary Clinton, who, to judge from some revealing public comments from key supporters, wouldn’t mind being offered a spot on Barack Obama’s ticket.

Clinton’s value to Obama is clear: an instant truce with the 18 million or so Democratic primary voters—about 15 percent of the November electorate—who didn’t vote for him. Plus, Clinton may be his best hope of carrying the 27 electoral votes of Florida, where polls show a stubborn and staggering gap between her performance against John McCain and his. And yet there is at least one major consideration that reduces the plausibility of the Hillary scenario: Why, if he has even an inch of wiggle room, would Obama ever consent to a four- or eight-year power-sharing arrangement with her and her husband?

Those two variables, value and plausibility, are the keys to handicapping the vice presidential derby.

Kathleen Sebelius, for instance, is a more plausible pick than Clinton and, in fact, features prominently on most pundits’ tip sheets. The theory is that snubbing Clinton for a different female candidate would mollify the women who have been so loyal to Clinton. And, unlike with Clinton, Obama would have confidence that Sebelius, one of his early supporters, would be a team player in the fall campaign and in his administration. Because of his strong relationship with Sebelius, it is plausible that Obama would be interested in making her his running mate.

But Sebelius, the daughter of a former Ohio governor who previously served in the Kansas legislature and as the state’s insurance commissioner, falls short in the value category, because she would only exacerbate Obama’s vulnerability to one of the Republicans’ main lines of attack: that he is dangerously inexperienced on international affairs and national security—or that he hasn’t, as Clinton herself memorably put it, passed “the commander in chief test.”

All of this explains why Virginia’s Jim Webb has been getting so much press lately. Of all of Obama’s possible choices, Webb may represent the strongest mix of value and plausibility.

Start with his value, which, at least on paper, eclipses virtually any other contender. No pick could do more than Webb to reassure the country when the G.O.P. starts bludgeoning Obama with its national security attacks. To grasp the authority that Webb would bring to the ticket, just consider McCain’s attack on Obama over the weekend for his lack of military service. Webb, a no-nonsense Vietnam combat veteran and former secretary of the navy (under a Republican president, no less), would help immunize Obama against such an attack and would be able to throw the charge back in McCain’s face.

Webb, with his patriotic life story and maverick’s swagger, would be a near-perfect antidote to McCain, providing immeasurable reassurance to swing voters who are inclined to throw the Republicans out of the White House but tempted by McCain’s reputation for integrity. With Webb on the ticket, it would be much tougher for McCain to convince Americans that Obama’s foreign policy prescriptions are the product of inexperience and naïveté.

Webb also offers the geographic balance that is traditionally sought in a VP candidate. Virginia is in play this year, and if the Democrats succeed in flipping its 13 electoral votes to their column for the first time since 1964, the impact could be decisive. If Obama were to win three states between Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, he could very possibly claim the White House without any other Southern states and with no Western states (besides those on the Pacific coast).

And while some will say that pairing two senators on the same ticket is unwise, keep in mind that his Senate tenure—which now stands at 18 months—is virtually an afterthought on the 62-year-old Webb’s résumé. His experiences are diverse and include executive leadership, as Navy secretary. He is not saddled with an extensive catalog of Senate votes and would hardly seem, to most voters, like just another senator.

It is also plausible that Obama would want to put him on the ticket. Webb stayed out of the Democratic primary (while Obama carried Virginia by 30 points), so while Obama is hardly indebted to him, he also doesn’t hold any grudges against him. Webb’s neutrality might also make him a palatable choice to Clinton supporters, in a way that a running mate who had stridently backed Obama in the primaries wouldn’t be. So Webb passes the plausibility test: Obama probably wouldn’t mind picking him, and he’d probably be able to get away with picking him.

There is a caveat with Webb, though. The enthusiasm for his placement on the ticket this year calls to mind the enthusiasm for his entrance into Virginia’s Senate race two years ago. Back then, Democrats saw in his biography the perfect candidate to capitalize on the public’s growing impatience with the Iraq war and to win over a critical chunk of Virginia’s many Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters.

He did win the Senate race, beating George Allen by 9,000 votes, but the victory didn’t exactly come about as planned. Webb’s triumph in 2006 was not the result of inroads into the state’s more conservative areas, but rather a consequence of the state’s shifting demographics: Webb rolled up big margins in the increasingly liberal and densely populated sprawl of northern Virginia, compensating for Allen’s strength in the state’s rural areas.

This can be partly chalked up to the nature of Senate races, in which the personalities of candidates are often less important than their party label—a contrast to presidential (and even gubernatorial) politics. On the national stage in a White House race, Webb might have better luck appealing to and winning over conservative-leaning voters than he did in his Senate campaign.

But 2006 also revealed some deficiencies in Webb as a candidate. His speeches were flat and often uninspiring, and he seemed almost sedated in television interviews. After being coaxed into the race by national Democrats, he very nearly lost the 2006 primary, defeating an unknown lobbyist named Harris Miller by just six points. And his victory over Allen may have been more a result of Allen’s mistakes—surely you remember “macaca”—and the national tide, which strongly favored Democrats.

That said, 2006 was Webb’s first venture into elected politics. He’s a stronger speaker now and better on television. And in a national campaign, what seemed dull in ’06 might instead register as sober, responsible and reassuring. And, really, when the Republicans start calling him a weakling and a lightweight, is there anyone Obama would rather have by his side than Jim Webb?

What Jim Webb Is Worth to Obama