What is the point of the Democratic primary?
For the media, the point is figuring out how to make the inevitable interesting. For Hillary Clinton, the point is to make it through Super Tuesday with a minimum of drama and damage.
Ask Jim Webb that question, though, and you’re likely to get an answer befitting someone who morphed from a Reagan Republican to an Elizabeth Warren Democrat; who entered an unwinnable Senate race in 2006 and won; who gave one of the only successful State of the Union responses in recent memory; who got bored of the Senate and quit to write books; and who became the first member of his party to explore the 2016 presidential race, with a longshot, shoestring campaign that’s still waiting for traction. As Webb put it in his latest book, “All I have asked, as the ancient philosopher intoned, is not to be understood too quickly.”
In other words: it’s complicated.
It’s complicated by the fact that Webb fits uncomfortably into his party’s ideological boxes, and by the fact that the Vietnam veteran and ex-Navy Secretary enjoys politics about as much as the average low-information voter. Yet I’m convinced that Jim Webb is going to make noise this election season. Let’s not expect him to derail the Clinton juggernaut—but let’s be thankful that the Democratic primary is going to give one of the most interesting people in politics a public stage.
Yes, Webb is polling at around 1 percent right now. But here’s why that number is going up.
He was Elizabeth Warren before it was cool.
It’s clear that the Clinton-Warren showdown that much of the Democratic base has been pining for is not going to happen. That means Warren’s defining issues—economic fairness, record inequality, and the political power of big finance—are up for grabs, and Webb is well-positioned to put them at the center of his campaign.
As early as 2006, he was calling out economic elites in the kind of blistering language that seems to have anticipated Warren’s appeal: “The most important—and unfortunately the least debated—issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country.” In the Senate, he supported a tax on bonuses for executives whose companies received government bailouts, as well as a higher capital gains tax.
Whatever you think of that version of economic fairness, it strikes a serious chord with the Democratic base. Can Clinton capitalize on it? She can try. But economic populism is always going to sit awkwardly on a politician with Clinton’s personal wealth and ties to the financial industry. Webb isn’t impoverished by any stretch—but he’s a lot closer to the rest of us than Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.
He can broaden his party’s appeal.
It’s true that other would-be Clinton challengers, like Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, are running to her left on the economy. But while they share the culture of East Coast, urban liberalism, a Virginian like Webb comes out of a different tradition—the Southern populism that was once the Democratic party’s backbone. Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist who’s still close to Webb, put it this way: “His constituency is people who feel like they’re getting screwed.”
If working-class, white voters represent the Achilles heel of the current Democratic coalition, Webb is the candidate best placed to bring them into the fold. Part of that is a question of symbolic signifiers, like the combat boots Webb famously wore during his Senate campaign, in honor of his son, who was deployed in Iraq. But it’s also his own military service, which resonates heavily in rural America. Along with Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham, Webb is one of just three 2016 candidates with military experience. But Webb is by far the most decorated: But Webb is by far the most decorated: he returned from Vietnam with a Navy Cross, two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and shrapnel that he still carries in his body.
Beyond that, Webb’s service in the Reagan administration and his positions on issues like gun control and immigration, which are to the right of his party’s liberal mainstream, could make him competitive in states that haven’t been in the blue column since the days of Bill Clinton. At the very least, he’s capable of pinning down the very fickle blueness of Virginia and continuing Barack Obama’s inroads into North Carolina, two huge states for Democrats in 2016. Webb’s ability to expand the electoral map is worth taking seriously in an election year when Republican frontrunners like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio (and VP hopefuls like John Kasich) stand a strong chance of making gains in Democratic territory.
He has unmatched credibility on foreign policy.
At the center of Hillary Clinton’s case for the presidency is the fact that she’s tough and tested, a politician who’s truly been through the wringer and come out standing. But just as Webb’s economic views capture part of Warren’s populism, his time in government and the military captures part of Clinton’s tenacity and experience.
Make what you will of the value of “executive experience,” but actual time inside the belly of the federal government can make a real difference. A huge part of the president’s power comes from his or her ability to push and prod the executive bureaucracy—especially in the current partisan environment, where the president’s influence over legislation is limited. Skill at navigating byzantine bureaucracies isn’t the sexiest campaign selling point, but it’s an underrated asset and one that Webb can credibly claim as a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy.
Granted, Webb wasn’t especially long-lived in the latter post—he resigned in protest of a plan to cut the size of the fleet—but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of his time in and around the military to his foreign policy judgments. Remember, he opposed President Bush’s Iraq war and President Obama’s intervention in Libya, which helped topple a dictator but set off a spiral of civil bloodshed. Clinton, on the other hand, arguably got both of those calls wrong.
But credibility on foreign policy issues is about more than just casting the right votes. As Navy veteran Ken Harbaugh wrote at Time.com, “Presidents with military experience, especially in combat roles, have undergone the kind of test that politics cannot match. As Commanders-in-Chief, they carry with them real empathy, the kind that cannot be faked, towards the men and women they will inevitably send into harm’s way.” Webb is the only contender in the race who has seen combat, the only one you could imagine saying, as Dwight Eisenhower once said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.” (Though Webb would probably give you an ugly look if you called him a soldier instead of a Marine.)
Consider the citation for Webb’s Navy Cross. In 1969, on a search and destroy mission deep behind enemy lines, First Lieutenant Webb attacked two bunkers and apprehended three enemy soldiers, seemingly on his own. As the assault continued,
he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker.
But as heroic as that was, does it matter today? I think it does. The president decides when and whether to send people to fight and die overseas, and the next president will become a wartime leader the second he or she takes the oath. There’s a moral authority in being able to say to the soldiers under their command, “I’m not asking you to do what I haven’t done. I’ve been there.”
He hates politics.
From Ross Perot to John McCain in his more candid moments, Americans have long had a thing for anti-politicians. Anti-politicians can still run for office—it’s just that they aren’t defined by vote-chasing and poll-watching. Like the kid in the back of the class shooting spitballs, the anti-politician appeals to the rebels, scares the establishment, and makes the rest of us pay attention.
In a field of political animals, that’s perhaps Webb’s defining characteristic. He left the Senate because, he said, “I faced the Hobson’s choice of either turning into a perennial scold or surrendering a part of my individuality to the uncontrollable, collective nature of group politics. I was not ready to do either.” The constant campaigning, the fundraising, the glad-handing and backslapping—Webb viscerally hates it. And that puts him in league with the many millions of Americans who can’t stand politics for the same reasons. Anti-politicians aren’t good at measuring their words or securing wealthy backers for their runs—but they are good at connecting with the anti-political public in an instantly credible way. When it comes to Washington dysfunction, someone like Webb can take a believable position above the fray.
Perhaps that’s why Webb’s ideological hodgepodge is something of an asset. There are large swathes of voters whose own views are weakly represented by either party—blue-collar workers who are falling behind economically but hold to traditional social values, or libertarian-ish millennials who want less regulation and more gay marriage. A candidate like Webb couldn’t possibly speak to all of those views, but he can speak to the sense of being dissatisfied with our standard-issue ideologies, of choosing a set of beliefs without the usual calculations. No, that’s not a formula for winning a primary. But it is a formula for looking a bit more like a “normal” person in a field of political lifers.
He’s the closest to “normal” of any candidate in the race.
This, it seems to me, is the core of Webb’s appeal: politics is part of his life, but it’s not his entire life. In this day and age, it may be too much to ask that our politicians be the kind of people we can comfortably have a beer with, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that our leaders have done something—anything—outside the narrow world of politics and government.
And yet look at the field. Hillary Clinton has been on the national stage for a generation. Politics is the Bush family business, and Jeb was born into it. Marco Rubio and Scott Walker have had essentially no other careers but politics. Sure, Webb is a politician, too, but he’s also lived a full, varied, non-political life. He hasn’t plotted his every move on the basis of how it might look to voters; if anything, he seems to have done the opposite. Remember, this is a guy who twice held high office—and twice gave it up: he resigned as Secretary of the Navy, and he chose not to run for re-election after only one term in the Senate.
Seeing all this, you get the sense that part of him would rather not be in politics at all. Were one of his better-funded, better-organized, better-known opponents to win the primary, you get the feeling that he’d simply shrug his shoulders and move on. Which means that, more than any of his rivals, he’s a candidate with nothing to lose. That’s good, because he is going to lose. But whether because of a sharp performance in a debate, a surprise showing in a primary state, or sheer Clinton fatigue, Webb is going to have his moment in the spotlight. And whether it’s by speaking out for the constituency of “screwed” Americans, calling attention to the issues of criminal justice reform he’s been working on for a decade, or criticizing the drift of our foreign policy, the point of Webb’s campaign is making the most of that moment when it comes.
Jimmy Soni is the co-author of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato. He is an editor at the Observer and lives in New York City.