Bored American reporters are pining for a Democratic primary challenger to step up against Hillary Clinton in 2016. We don’t like coronations. It’s not just cynical Republicans who cheered at ‘emailgate’ — the crisis Clinton faced after it emerged she had used a private account for her emails as Secretary of State. It makes matters more interesting, and moves the spotlight on to other, less celebrated politicians.
The media is consequently obsessed with the idea that Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat admired by Occupy Wall Street, can take on Hillary. The more logical opponent is Joe Biden, the Vice President. There’s also Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist senator from Vermont. But let us not overlook the most interesting potential challenger: former Virginia senator Jim Webb. He has already declared his interest in exploring a 2016 campaign. Compared with the rest of the Democratic field, his biography reads like Theodore Roosevelt’s.
A 1968 graduate of the US Naval Academy, where he was a varsity boxer, Webb fought as a marine in the Vietnam war. He was wounded twice, earning the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Webb went on to collect a law degree from Georgetown, serve as counsel to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and be appointed defence secretary and secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan. Not even the Reagan administration was tough enough on defence for him — Webb quit over potential cuts to the 600-ship navy. (‘I don’t think the navy was sorry to see him go,’ the President wrote in his diary.)
After leaving government, he won an Emmy TV award and wrote six bestselling novels. One of them, Fields of Fire, has been frequently listed among the best books about the Vietnam war. In 2000, Webb endorsed George W. Bush for president and fellow Republican George Allen for the US Senate.
Then came the Iraq war. In 2002, Webb came out against the conflict in an op-ed in the Washington Post. He argued the occupation would be more difficult than the invasion and that knocking off Saddam Hussein would remove a regional counterweight to Iran, all of which proved true. Webb lobbied Allen to vote against the Iraq war. Allen told Webb that he would vote with the President. Webb then decided he would run against them both.
While the war prompted Webb’s break with the Republican party, he had other issues that didn’t fit its platform. Webb was an economic populist, critical of corporations and worsening inequality. He was particularly concerned about the white working-class poor and the people of the Appalachians.
Despite a 2006 Democratic tide that washed away Republican majorities in both houses, Webb only narrowly defeated Allen. His six years in the Senate were marked by advocacy for veterans but were otherwise uneventful. The gruff loner appeared to find the chamber boring, disdaining fundraising and preferring to write books. He retired after a single term.
So what makes anyone think he will be a quality presidential contender? Let’s first compare him to the other non-Clintons who might have aspirations. The fact that Biden is not currently frontrunner suggests how little anyone takes the Vice President seriously, even within the Democratic party. He’s notoriously gaffe-prone. Warren would split the women’s vote with Clinton and isn’t much younger. According to one New Hampshire poll, she trails Clinton by 41 percentage points. Sanders is like an irascible ageing uncle in his rumpled suits. He could make an impression as a maverick figure in the Democratic primaries, but has technically spent most of his political career as an independent. And outside Vermont, avowed socialists do not go far in American politics.
Webb, on the other hand, is a fighter. He’s used to speaking to a very different constituency from the ones Democrats are used to: working-class whites and his ancestral Scots-Irish. Webb acknowledges these ‘original Jacksonians’ form ‘the core culture around which Red State America [the Republican base] has gathered and thrived’. And he thinks he can win these bedrock Republicans for his party. ‘I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?’ Webb has told an interviewer. ‘I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they’re being racist.’ He has his finger on a real problem: while the Democrats attract a diverse coalition, 64 per cent of white men voted Republican in 2014 — an election the Democrats lost.
Elizabeth Warren isn’t better equipped to deal with this group than Hillary. She’s also revealed herself to be a much more limited populist. While she helped sink an Obama appointment who was too close to Wall Street and identified a potential bailout provision in a budget that the President otherwise favoured, she has also backed corporate welfare programmes like the taxpayer-funded US Export-Import Bank. And Warren, unlike Webb, has been hawkish on Iran. Foreign policy is a major vulnerability for Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Clinton lost the nomination last time because of her vote for the Iraq war, which Obama opposed. Well, Webb opposed it too.
In Virginia, Webb was able to transcend his cultural conservatism by convincing progressive activists he was a fighter who could beat Republicans. His campaign attracted substantial support from ‘net roots’ bloggers well to his left. Once elected, Webb patched things up with former Democratic rivals and voted a liberal line in the Senate. Webb could run against Hillary as a creature of Wall Street like her husband while also representing what Howard Dean once called the ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic party’ on foreign policy and civil liberties. He can stand with the President on negotiations with Iran while Clinton will already be looking to pivot to the general election. Yet Webb’s appeal beyond the party may be greater than Clinton’s. No less a conservative than Oliver North called him ‘a noble warrior’.
All these assets in terms of appealing to regular voters will be liabilities with donors. Team Hillary will also press Webb on more conservative positions he’s taken in the past, such as on affirmative action and women in combat (he was against both). The Clintons know their opposition research and Webb has put many of his opinions in print.
But if it is a fight Hillary Clinton is looking for, who better than Jim Webb — author of Born Fighting, natch — to give it to her?
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W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?
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