The recent announcement by former Virginia senator Jim Webb that he’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination had a deep personal resonance. I may be a Republican and a devoted Jeb Bush supporter, but Webb remains the most fascinating personality I’ve ever encountered.
Jim and I were friends in the Reagan-era Pentagon, and for ten memorable months he was my boss as secretary of the Navy. His quitting the coveted post of “SecNav” in February 1988 was that rare thing in American government: A resignation on policy grounds, the climax of a bitter dispute he had with the secretary of Defense over the size of the fleet.
The high drama of that fight was no surprise to anyone familiar with Webb. Combat, honor, and the stalwart patriotism of the American yeomanry dominate the six novels Jim has written over the past 40 years. His heroes tend to be courageous and principled young military men who fight out of family tradition, love of country, fealty to brother warriors, and a genetic tendency toward conflict – rather like the author.
“Few things in life have come as naturally to me as combat,” Webb wrote in his 2004 history of the Scots-Irish, the nation’s largest ethnic group, a book appropriately titled Born Fighting.
Webb has a strong sense that he and his people have been the victims of sneering eastern elites since their ancestors were given land in the Appalachians to protect lowland planters against Indian attacks. Even while derided as “hillbillies” or “rednecks”, these hardy people have answered their country’s call to arms in all its wars, and they dominate America’s armed forces to this day.
Webb opposed both US interventions in Iraq, seeing them as unnecessary for the actual defense of the homeland. In his view, ordinary Americans died or were wounded in wars concocted for obscure geopolitical reasons by national security experts on the East Coast who never expected their own kids to fight them. Jim Webb is thus a highly-decorated military veteran who is vocally antiwar, or at least anti-“wars of choice”.
No two people better epitomize what Webb reviles than Hillary and Bill Clinton. Of humble Midwestern and southern origin themselves, they eagerly pursued and achieved elite status through Eastern educations, a Rhodes Scholarship, Yale Law School degrees, Renaissance Weekends with the beautiful people, and the wealth that comes from fame and connections. There is the further incendiary fact that while Webb was sweating and bleeding as a Marine officer in Vietnam, a draft-dodging Bill Clinton was sipping port at Oxford.
There certainly will be a lot of room to Hillary’s right, especially if she is pulled ever leftward by primary foes Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee. The question is whether Webb can persuade blue-collar workers and his Scots-Irish brethren to enter Democratic primaries and vote for him. Having become “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980’s, they are now part of the Republican base, ardently wooed by a crowd of GOP presidential candidates.
In the unlikelihood – if not impossibility – that Jim Webb actually wins the Democratic nomination for president, he could severely threaten Republican hopes of regaining the White House. Whoever the Democrats nominate will start off with between 200 and 250 electoral votes out of the 269 needed to win the presidency. The last GOP victory — that of George W. Bush in 2004 – was laid to his winning Ohio. But even more critical to Bush were the states from Virginia to Missouri, with 54 electoral votes to Ohio’s 20. (These numbers will be down one each in 2016.)
The border south is where Jim Webb’s kind of folks live, and if a sufficient number of them vote Democratic, the GOP is doomed. After all, the real reason Al Gore lost the White House in 2000 was not because he was counted out of Florida – “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads” notwithstanding – but because his home state of Tennessee went Republican.
Once Jim Webb, a star boxer at the Naval Academy, starts punching, we may witness a dramatic Democratic primary campaign — and perhaps the rough outline of a seventh novel.