Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016


Hillary Clinton is certainly enjoying a clear lead in Democratic polls for presidential nominee in 2016, but she will not go unchallenged. A few Dems have made noises about taking her on, among them former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who sits with Democrats in the Senate, has spoken of running, too. But former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb could be the most serious challenge to date, with strong appeal to white working class men, some independents, and parts of the Democratic base.

Webb is quite an interesting character, and naturally has some progressives buzzing since he announced he was considering throwing his hat into the ring. A military man, as well as a best-selling author, documentary producer and screenwriter, Webb is disciplined, articulate and TV-ready. He is simultaneously thoughtful and pugnacious, and possesses a persona that has been described by southern political strategist Mudcat Saunders, who worked on Webb’s successful 2006 senate race, as “redneck regal.” He’s a man who presents an air of integrity, and whose straight-talking reputation contrasts with the slippery aura of the Clintons. (In 2006, newly minted senators Webb, Tester and McCaskill joined forces in what Webb called the "redneck caucus,” named for those who held the reddest seats Democrats won that year.)

Webb was notorious for despising fundraising when he ran for the Senate and has frequently taken an anti-Wall Street stance. However, once he got to D.C., he proved a quick study in working the money machine, hauling in handsome sums from the defense, transportation and communication and technology industries, and yes, Wall Street, for his PAC. So there's that.

Webb likes to quote Ronald Reagan, and he served as assistant secretary of defense and Navy secretary during the Reagan administration. A former marine and combat veteran whose only son has served in Iraq, Webb garnered the enthusiasm of many progressives during a famous incident back in 2006, when then-president George W. Bush inquired about Webb's son. Webb snapped back that his son was none of the president’s beeswax and that Bush should do something about getting the troops out of there. The dustup made headlines, and Webb later apologized.

Undoubtedly, Webb has been prescient on several military matters, including early warnings that outsourcing to private contractors like Blackwater would end badly. Today, he often professes an anti-war stance, which will appeal to many Democrats. Webb has been dovish on the use of military force to intervene in Libya (in contrast to Clinton), and has criticized Obama’s Middle East policies as a mess.

On the other hand, Webb’s past hawkishness on China has caused some to point out that his positions on war are more complex than is often recognized. As late as 2012, he could be heard warning that America’s response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea "have for years emboldened China,” and that “history teaches us that when unilateral acts of aggression go unanswered, the bad news never gets better with age.” On China, he is an interventionist. He is also a vocal gun enthusiast who champions the Second Amendment and whose aide was arrested in 2007 for trying to enter the Russell Senate office building with the senator’s pistol. Yikes.

On social issues, Webb has sometimes lagged behind his Democratic colleagues, such as his fingernail-on-the-chalkboard irritating argument against women in combat in a 1979 Washingtonian article, “Women Can’t Fight” in which he suggested, essentially, that ladies just aren’t manly enough to bear arms. “Their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command,” he proclaimed, “is poisoning that preparation.” Feminists have not forgotten.

Yet the same man has often been way ahead of fellow Dems on important topics. He has long been keen on prison reform and critical of the number of African Americans locked up in an unjust system. Webb once wrote that American politics could be revolutionized if working-class Scots-Irish whites would join forces with blacks. He wrote about his own Scots-Irish background in a 2005 book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, which explores the heritage of outsiders who migrated to the America during the 18th century and whose distrust of elites and confrontational spirit influenced blue-collar culture and politics. Webb’s people are backcountry Virginians, as opposed to Tidewater elites, and he strongly identifies with the tradition of working-class whites who have stood up to aristocrats and entrenched power.

On the economic front, Webb is interesting indeed. He’s got the southern populist streak nailed down, which, as I have argued, Democrats ignore and underestimate at their peril. My granddaddy, of Scots-Irish extraction like Webb, was a southern tobacco farmer who hunted quail, distrusted bankers and fondly remembered FDR. Hillary Clinton would have little of interest to say to him, but Jim Webb would. While a senator, Webb proposed a new GI bill that would expand educational benefits for post-9/11 veterans, much as they helped vets returning from World War II. Those New Deal-type ideas are the kinds of things that got many southern whites on board with the Dems during FDR’s administration. They made tangible differences in people’s lives, white and black. Webb has talked about the family values he grew up with, which included economic fairness and an emphasis on fighting for those who are disadvantaged.

Clinton likes to talk about the 99 percent when she’s not cozying up to Wall Street, but Webb sounds more credible to many on that topic. During a recent speech at the National Press Club, when Webb admitted he is “seriously” thinking of running for president, he noted that “basically, if you want true fairness in this society, and you want to give a voice in the quarters of power to those who otherwise would not have it, I believe that will come from the Democratic Party.”

And how might Clinton feel about Webb as a challenger? Well, Webb would possibly take some progressive votes away from Bernie Sanders, a man whose unassailable commitment to the 99 percent has made him a hero to many Americans fed up with money politics. That could be helpful to Clinton.

Many feminists, however, do not like Webb, and will never support him against Clinton. A Webb candidacy will raise an interesting debate among women whether they would prefer a female candidate more aligned with the 1 percent or a male candidate sometimes tone-deaf on women whose economic policies could nonetheless potentially help women even more than men.

Webb does has several advantages that could make him a serious challenge: Veterans who sound dovish are appealing to Dems, and Webb's maverick reputation and anti-elitism will appeal to many in the Democratic base, as will his willingness to criticize his own party when it sucks up to Wall Street. His outsider persona will stand in stark contrast to the negative perception of Hillary Clinton as a legacy candidate and D.C. insider.

Webb's presence will certainly make things more lively, and some are even dreaming of a Warren-Webb ticket. Fasten your seatbelts — this could get interesting.

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