Five years ago, almost to the day, a few of us netroots troublemakers – Josh Chernila, Lee Diamond, Corey Hernandez and myself (soon joined by several others, like Mary Detweiler and Chris Ambrose) – kicked off a movement aimed at “drafting” James Webb to run for the U.S. Senate. Within a few weeks, we had collected 1,000 signatures urging Webb to run, $40,000 in pledges to his campaign, and many other private expressions of support. In the end, this effort appears to have helped persuade Webb to throw his hat in the political ring against the seemingly invincible Sen. George Allen. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Now, fast forward to today. Jim Webb has been in the U.S. Senate for nearly 4 years. In just 2 years, he’s up for reelection — and believe it or not, the guy we came to know and (not) love as “Felix Macacawitz” appears to be running again. In addition to “Felix,” there are several others who may run for the Republican nomination from Allen’s political right — astounding, given that Allen voted 97% of the time with George W. Bush — including Prince William County board chair and anti-immigrant zealot Corey Stewart, homophobe/anti-contraception/climate change denier/etc. “Sideshow Bob” Marshall, and Virginia Tea Party leader Jamie Radtke. To put it mildly, all of these candidates would be seriously flawed, and none of them exactly strike fear into Democrats’ hearts, assuming Jim Webb runs for reelection.
Which brings us back to Webb, and specifically the question, will he run for reelection? So far, the indications have been mixed: Webb has raised very little money and has a miniscule “war chest” by incumbent U.S. Senator standards; Webb continues to “[eschew] the normal aspects of politics,” as Gerry Connolly puts it; Webb has made it very clear, over and over again, that he hates campaigning (he described the end of the 2006 campaign as “like I was stepping out of a sewer”); Webb’s frustrated that his criminal justice reform commission has gotten nowhere in the Senate; and he commented recently that “I’ve spent a majority of my life outside of government…I don’t really have a game plan.” All of that tells me that Webb is at best iffy (50/50? 40/60?) on whether he’ll run for reelection in 2012.
Given Webb’s reluctance, would a grassroots/netroots “draft” movement help persuade him, as it did in 2006, to run? Perhaps, but I’m highly skeptical that we could – or should – attempt to “draft” Jim Webb again. This flows from my understanding of the unique confluence of factors that resulted in the “draft” working in 2006.
First, back in 2006, there was tremendous energy to tap into for Democrats and progressive activists, mostly anger at George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and the Republicans. Today, following the 2006 and 2008 elections, that anger is mostly dissipated. Without that energy, what exactly would fuel a successful “draft” movement, let alone build a massive “ragtag army” of supporters? I’m not sure.
Second, in late 2005/early 2006, Jim Webb was a fresh, exciting figure on the scene: a “real American hero” who had spoken out forcefully against the Iraq war; a “Jacksonian populist” on economic policy (“the health of a society should be measured at its base, not at its apex”); a libertarian in many ways on social issues (government shouldn’t come in your front door unless there’s an “overriding reason to do do”); a man with strong family roots in Appalachia, yet a home in populous northern Virginia; etc. Today, in contrast, Webb has many votes under his belt and has been through the “sausage factory,” aka “the making of legislation,” that we know and love as our Congress. Lots of shades of gray, lots of votes on bills that weren’t exactly “Jacksonian populist” or whatever. In other words, it’s a lot more complicated today than it was in 2006.
Third, because of Webb’s many votes on specific issues (e.g., energy and environment are of particular concern to people like Miles and me), the progressive grassroots/netroots – which was very much open to Webb’s candidacy in 2006, and in the end supported it with $4 million in online fundraising and an enormous (12,000?) “ragtag army” of volunteers – is no longer a big fan of Webb’s. In fact, go to Daily Kos and mention Webb’s name, and you’re far more likely to be greeted with hostility and questions of “why the hell did we support him in 2006?!?” than with enthusiasm, love, or support. In 2006, I felt like I was pushing on a wide-open door as I went about promoting Jim Webb’s candidacy in the “leftosphere.” Today, it would be extremely difficult – although perhaps not impossible – to do that again.
Fourth, related to the previous point, my guess is that a 2012 campaign by Webb would be of an almost completely different character – far more “top down,” far less “grassroots” or a “movement” – than the 2006 campaign. How would a “draft” or a “ragtag army” fit into that paradigm? I’m not sure.
It’s also important to point out that a Webb candidacy would have some major advantages this time around, and thus would need a “draft” movement far, far less than in 2006. For starters, we wouldn’t have to convince a skeptical Democratic establishment that the former Reagan Navy Secretary even really is a Democrat. And we wouldn’t have to convince Webb that he’d be accepted by the Democratic Party – establishment, activists, whoever. That was one of Webb’s two main concerns in 2006, the other being the need to raise millions of dollars. Speaking of which; as an incumbent U.S. Senator, Webb could certainly crank up fundraising quickly, and certainly wouldn’t be starting off again with “no money and no staff,” as he puts it. Webb also would begin this time around with an almost universal name ID in Virginia, unlike in 2006, when we had to introduce him to voters (although that can cut both ways in politics). And this time, we would start against George Allen – assuming he’s the nominee – with “macaca,” with the “deer head in a black family’s mailbox” story, with his “frequent use of the ‘n word’ in college,” with the Conservative Citizens Council connection, with his 97% voting with George W. Bush, etc., etc. Finally, Webb has accomplishments as a U.S. Senator he can point to, starting with the modern-day GI Bill, and continuing on to his work at “reorienting U.S. foreign policy” and generally being an expert on military/national security issues in the Senate.
The bottom line of all this? Today, Jim Webb’s in pretty good shape politically – far stronger than he was in 2006, when Steve Jarding famously gave Webb a 15% chance of winning – if he decides to run for reelection. But will he? Who knows. And would a “draft” help to make up his mind? I doubt it, given all the points raised above. But you never know, and I’d love to hear the counterargument. Have at it in the comments section!
P.S. I’m going to wait to hear what Jim Webb decides, and if the answer is “no,” seriously think of starting a “Draft Tom Perriello” movement for 2012! 🙂