Where Will We Find the Next Jim Webb?


    Jim Webb’s election as US Senator in 2006 held great promise for the future of Democrats in Virginia and nationwide.  He was and is a unique kind of Democrat, offering the hope of bringing a very different constituency into the party – the Scots-Irish, more rural and pro-military but profoundly populist folks who are too poorly served by their steadfast support of the Republican agenda of enriching America’s millionaires.

    This past week’s election results, leaving Republicans in total control of state government, made crystal clear that the forces of reaction have roared back to crush this revolution – for now.  Democratic hopes of expanding our base in Virginia have largely stopped dead at the borders of Fairfax County, as we have failed to appeal to the kind of Virginians, from the exurbs to the small towns, who look and in some ways think like Jim Webb.

    But rather than sulking, we need to figure out how the revolution that Jim Webb promised got stopped in its tracks, and how we revive it – with new Jim Webbs, wherever we can find them.  

    It is important to remember what an unlikely Democratic candidate Webb made in 2006.  Webb is an archetypal symbol of Marine machismo, who blazed a trail from his famed boxing match with Oliver North at Annapolis to his uncommon courage in Vietnam, where he earned the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts.  He made his mark as a Reagan administration official, bringing the Marines back from a low point and dramatically resigning as Navy Secretary when he disagreed with the president’s policies.  

    Webb had been a Republican for what may be called cultural reasons, especially his love of the military, but fell away in disgust at how George W. Bush misused the military with the appalling, destructive Iraq War.  He was also attracted to the Democrats because of his economic populism, and because, as a highly independent thinker, he seemed repelled by the born-again intolerance of Republicans for anyone who is different.  

    Indeed, one of the primary challenges with attracting the Scots-Irish constituency to the Democrats – about which Webb wrote brilliantly in his book, Born Fighting – is how to appeal and respond to their reflexive economic populism while discouraging their traditional Achilles’ heel, which is racism.  Indeed, we can’t forget that the once Southern-based Democratic party that had these folks as a core constituency was fundamentally a racist party – and this constituency abandoned the Democrats largely in protest against the Civil Rights movement.  President Andrew Jackson, whom Webb holds up as a model as the first great populist Scots-Irish president, famously mixed his disdain for elites (in killing the country’s Second National Bank) with great cruelty for the country’s Indian population (forcing their relocation to the West through the “Trail of Tears”).

    And race certainly forms at least part of the undertone of the Tea Party movement that has brought the same constituency firmly back to the GOP bosom in reaction against a black president consistently portrayed as a kind of elitist, socialist alien.

    So where did the Webb revolution go off the tracks and how do we get back to expanding the Democratic base to appeal to the poor rural folks whose interests are best supported by a party that works for them rather than for Wall Street?  One key to understanding this constituency – which is the main point of Born Fighting – is to see them not as “rednecks” but as a unique ethnic group with its own cultural sensitivities.  We may not like or agree with all of these cultural proclivities, nor do we need to – but we just need to show them some respect.  

    We need a Democratic big tent that can include everyone from Muslims in Northern Virginia to poor rural whites in Southwest, by appealing to universal principles and policies of fairness, justice and sustainability.  Note that Jim Webb has not simply been a Blue Dog Democrat who’s gone along with the pro-corporate agenda of the Republicans under the cover of being “centrist”.  To the contrary, his appeal has been as an economic populist and foreign policy realist who understands and respects the Scots-Irish stock from whence he came.  

    What we need, then, are not conservative Democrats who will bash President Obama and progressive values, but populist Democrats who will fight even harder for progressive values in ways that appeal to the truly downtrodden in small towns across the Commonwealth and the country.  We need Jim Webbs who understand and show respect for small town culture while also making people understand that their interests are not represented by the party of the top 1%.

    In this regard, popular sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement is a positive sign.  So is the continuing stream of veterans running for office as Democrats.  (I was delighted to hear the other day that Richard Carmona, a Latino Vietnam vet who served uncomfortably as Bush’s Surgeon General, and a great guy, is now running for the US Senate in Arizona – as a Democrat!)

    Rather than shamelessly failing to even try to recruit candidates in non-traditional Democratic areas, we need to expand our outreach to these areas as Howard Dean did in his “50-state strategy”.  We need to learn to talk with constituencies who haven’t trusted us in the past – how else can we gain their trust?  And we need to find new Jim Webbs to refresh our candidate base, to lead new followers into the party.  They are out there – we just need to get out of our comfort zone, and theirs, to break new ground and create a new Democratic majority.

    • You mean someone who will vote with the Blue Dogs?  And who will bail out when we need him?

      How about another LBJ?

    • Quizzical

      Before we start looking for “another Jim Webb”, maybe it would be appropriate to review his accomplishments and assess whether we want another in his mold.  I’m not knocking Jim Webb, but after the second GI Bill, he seemed to disapppear. Maybe I’m wrong; I’d be delighted if someone showed me that I’m wrong.  Whatever he did, it was far from the “Born Fighting” aggressiveness that I expected.  Where was the fierce Scotch-Irish warrior chieftain during the last three years?  Also, wouldn’t it be fair to say that one of the responsibilities of leadership is trying to develop the next generation of leadership?  Who is Jim Webb saying is the next guy to pick up the torch?


    • Bumble Bee

      When you make an effort to reach out to the Virginia rural white voters and expand our base how do you get around the inherent racism that has been so much a part of that culture.  Beats me so far.

    • Quizzical

      I don’t know that setting Jim Webb up as a model is going to be helpful.  He’s a guy that was a legitimate decorated war hero, an accomplished novelist, a lawyer, and a former Secretary of the Navy in a Republican administration.  He’s one of a kind.

      Of course I realize that Tim Kaine is going to be running for Webb’s seat.  That said, it would be hard to find candidates for lesser offices that would match up to Webb’s resume.

      Also, as I said before, I’m not even sure that it is a good idea to look for a kind of celebrity candidate who is a Democratic party outsider.  Webb won his election, but five years later, the Democratic party in Virginia seems to be in a shambles.  Can you draw a line between those dots?  

    • kindler

      …my point is not that Jim Webb has been the perfect Senator or that he is clonable.  What I’m getting to is the need to find candidates who can win beyond NoVa and VA’s other Democratic enclaves.  Webb has a cultural grounding and understanding of small town, Scots-Irish America.  We need to figure out a much better way of appealing to those communities — not by trying to copy Republicans but through down home economic populism.

      We need to respect the culture of these areas without accepting the worst of that culture, e.g., racism.  I’m not saying any of this is easy, but the absolute most unacceptable answer is the DPVA’s refusal to even try to recruit candidates through half of the state.  That’ll keep us locked up in NOVA forever, and unable to ever turn Virginia blue.  

    • Paba

      Tieing success to individuals is a bit problematic. Sometimes they are just lighting in a bottle. What you have to do is build an active base that serves as a sort of farm team, or strong recruitment system, for any given region. That’s going to have to vary by regions. That’s just the way it is. Rural people think the urban Dems look down on them, and in many ways they are very right. Urban Dems think rural people are distracted by culture issues, and in many ways they are right. Neither is productive.

      I wish I had some idea how to build a big tent base back up without pissing off one side or the other. I guess maybe we really are becoming more fractured. Still, the Dems have a chance to recapture the areas they made inroads into in 2006-08, while I think the GOP is so far gone into extremism that they probably won’t return to most urban areas any time soon.