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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Jim Webb, His Fans, and His Detractors

Can anyone recall a presidential election cycle in which there has been so much speculation and argument about Veep choices so very early? The only one that comes to mind is 1964, when LBJ conducted a very extended and very public “search” for a running-mate that seemed to include virtually every Democratic elected official in the country.
There are obvious reasons for this Veep-o-mania. On the Republican side, John McCain’s age, and his less-than-perfect relationship with the GOP’s dominant conservative wing, have made his choice of running-mate a very big deal, leading to a common assumption (which I share) that conservatives will enjoy an implicit veto over the decision.
On the Democratic side, early Veep speculation has been spurred by perceptions that the long nomination contest has divided the party, and that Barack Obama has some very specific weaknesses in his biography and his electoral appeal that a running-mate might help address. Moreover, the idea that he could heal the intraparty wounds and broaden his appeal by forming a “Unity Ticket” with Hillary Clinton has acceletated the discussion, since there’s some sense that an early move in that direction by Obama might bring Clinton’s challenge to a decisive and amicable end.
In any event, we are beginning to hear the opening salvoes of the argument over a prospective Obama running-mate, beyond the strong negative reaction of many Obama supporters and progressive pundits to the Unity Ticket talk. And it’s not surprising that the name of Virginia Sen. Jim Webb is already arousing some very passionate pro and con feelings.
A lot of this sentiment hasn’t quite gone public yet, but there’s a sizable group of progressive activists and bloggers who viscerally identify with Webb’s staunch opposition to the Iraq War, his high-octane brand of economic populism, and (I might as well come out and say it, since Webb’s most avid promoters are almost invariably male) his testosterone-heavy approach to politics generally.
On a more rational level, at a time when there’s a lot of disagreement about what Obama most needs in a running-mate, Webb is rivalled only by Bill Richardson in the number of “boxes” his potential candidacy would check.
As a war hero and former Secretary of the Navy, Webb abundantly possesses the national security credentials that–on paper at least–Obama largely lacks.
He’s from a medium-sized red state that most Democrats consider potentially winnable.
As a former Republican, Webb could shore up Obama’s once-formidable and now-vulnerable ability to reach out to disaffected GOPers and GOP-leaning independents.
And Webb is the distinguished expert on and personal embodiment of a particular demographic group–the Scotch-Irish Americans who populated Appalachia and eventually migrated through the South and all the way to California–among whom Obama has done especially poorly in the Democratic primaries.
There are a few other factors that Webb boosters sometimes cite in his favor. One is his stellar performance delivering the 2007 Democratic response to Bush’s State of the Union Address, often contrasted with the understated effort this year by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a frequently-mentioned Veep possibility for Obama. And another is the talent for expression Webb has evidenced in his long literary career in fiction and nonfiction works, most recently his well-timed new book, A Time to Fight, which lays out a comprehensive agenda for the Democratic Party and the country.
But the case for Webb as Veep (even if he wants the gig, which is not at all clear from his recent comments on the subject) is by no means going to go unchallenged, as shown by a guest post today on Matt Yglesias’ site by feminist blogger Kathy G., who deems Webb “unacceptable.”
Kathy G. devotes some attention to disputing the positive case for Webb. She cites his relatively poor performance among white voters in VA in 2006, in a strong Democratic year against a wounded Republican incumbent; and his reputation as an indifferent campaigner and a difficult person generally. She also examines the downside of Webb’s ex-Republican status, including his past support for Republican candidates and policy positions, and his very recent endorsement of conservative revisionist theories about the Vietnam War.
But the heart of her post, in an exposition that we will hear again and again if Webb gets “short-listed” by Obama for the Veep position, is about Webb’s history on gender issues, dating all the way back to a highly controversial 1979 magazine piece in which the future Secretary of the Navy denounced the admission of women to the military academies, and opposed any consideration of allowing them anywhere near combat.
Webb, says Kathy G., became an enabler of all sorts of torments aimed at women in the military:

Webb’s writings on women did a hell of a lot of damage. It gave invaluable ammunition to the enemies of women’s presence in the military and helped stall and perhaps even roll back women’s progress there. Kathleen Murray, a 1984 academy graduate who went on to become a commander in the Navy, said of Webb’s screed: “This article was brandished repeatedly. [Men] quoted and used it as an excuse to mistreat us.”

And Webb’s controversial utterances about women in the military didn’t abate much later on.

At a 1991 convention of naval aviators called Tailhook, 83 women were reported to have been sexually harassed or assaulted by military personnel. From the beginning, Webb’s concern for the victims was merely perfunctory. But he gave many speeches and wrote many articles vociferously defending the accused. In a 1992 article in the New York Times, he called the investigation of Tailhook a “witch hunt.” In a 1997 article he wrote for the conservative Weekly Standard, he was highly critical of what he termed “ever-expanding sexual mixing” in the military and he referred to feminist efforts to improve the status of women in the military as merely “salving the egos of a group of never-satisfied social engineers.”

In a preliminary and atypically defensive response to Kathy G. today, pro-Webb blogger Spencer Ackerman cites some examples of how Webb promoted significant if non-combat assignments for women as Secretary of the Navy. But it’s still a problematic record, particularly, as Kathy G. notes, when it comes to the impact of a Webb Veep nomination on pro-Hillary Clinton women:

[I]n practical terms, selecting Webb would be a slap in the face to the Hillary Clinton supporters. I’m not saying that Obama has to pick Hillary as veep (and indeed, I think that would be a bad idea). I’m not even saying that he needs to pick a woman.
But Hillary was the first woman to ever have a serious shot at the presidency, and she came so close. So the Hillary supporters (of whom, to be clear, I am not one) will feel frustrated enough that their candidate didn’t win. But for Obama to choose — out of all the well-qualified candidates out there — the one person who has a really awful record on gender issues would be like rubbing salt in the wound. It would be seen as a big “screw you” to Hillary’s supporters and to feminists in general.

That’s the really key argument that stands in the way of a prospective Obama-Webb ticket.
And more generally, the passionate arguments for and against Jim Webb as Veep show that rejecting the Unity Ticket won’t take Barack Obama out of the thick woods on this issue. One of the main reasons I eventually came around to Unity Ticket advocacy, despite serious misgivings, is that there’s really no obvious alternative that doesn’t raise a lot of questions as well, without the upside of a quick resolution of the nominating contest and a balm on the wounds it created. Maybe the whole subject of the vice-presidential nomination is being overrated as a factor in the general election. But no matter: among the chattering classes at least, it’s going to hang fire for quite a while.

4 comments on “Jim Webb, His Fans, and His Detractors

  1. OleMissProgressive on

    That’s a shame that Sen. Webb wrote something like this. I would have to agree with Kathy G. that this will generate a backlash amongst the Clinton supporters we need to win in November. I think though that it would be a mistake to try to woo these voters by adding her to the ticket. The idea that Clinton will help secure the white working class is a complete myth generated by the Clinton camp. This may be true in the hardcore Democratic working class people that vote in the primaries but the vast majority of the white working class still view Clinton as just as much of an untrustworthy opportunist as they did when Rove was penning op-eds that hinted as much and pointed out that she has “the highest negatives in history”. It would be a terrible blunder to put any woman in the VP slot. America likes its change in small doses while us liberals like ours in huge chunks. We should not forget that we are doing something truly radical here in having a black man as our candidate. We should not risk a backlash and squander the milestone in the hand going for two in the proverbial bush. The best Obama VP choice would be a, for lack of a better description, down-home white guy. The kind of guy you love to have a beer with because he’s always got a good story and intelligent opinions. This will work to offset the “scary exotic man” with the crazy preacher and friends storyline the GOP will be pushing hard in this campaign. Personally now that my former choice Webb’s past has come to light, I’d like to see frmr Mississippi Gov. Mabus in the slot. Obviously I am biased some because we are from the same state but he has some great pluses in his resume even if he is largely unknown. He was a good governor of Mississippi that has some solid accomplishments in areas like education to point to and has Middle East experience. Mabus’ time as a diplomat to Saudi Arabia under the Clinton administration would serve as a strong counterweight to McCain’s claim that he knows what’s best for Iraq because of his military service. It would also serve to highlight the difference in the McCain/Obama foreign policy ideals in a way that would surely help Obama. McCain’s ticket would be the belligerent warhawks while Obama’s would be the pragmatic diplomats. The number one detraction is that he would not bring a state with his selection. It’s true that there is no way Mississippi is going to vote for any Democratic President, let alone a black one, this fall or this quarter century. But he would excite working class voters in other states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania in a way that none of the currently discussed VP potentials could without alienating people like it seems Webb would. Finally, this location problem could be turned into an asset with the simple storyline “Well, Obama chose the man that he believed was best for the job even if it wasn’t the best ‘political’ decision. This is all part of the Senator’s new kind of politics that he’s been championing from the start…” It’s a long shot to hope for this, but I think strategically it’s gold.

  2. Jon on

    Very interesting post; and props for putting the gender issues explicitly on the table.
    After this divisive primary campaign, there’s need for unification in several different dimensions; the VP choice can help — or hurt. There’s an interesting spectrum of choices here, including women in addition to Hillary on the shortlist (Sibelius, Napolitano), a lot of guys who are neutral on this front, and then the out-and-out negatives like Webb and (in some people’s view) Richardson. Of course this is far from the only consideration, but it’s a big one. It’s very interesting to track who thinks it’s worth considering.

  3. mjshep on

    As a fan of Webb and one who also considered him as a good VP choice I read Kathy G’s article with interest. There is no doubt she makes some very salient points which are difficult to refute. Whether they are enough to completely disqualify Webb, or not, I am still uncertain, but they are, nonetheless, enough to make one rethink and keep searching for someone who does not have this baggage.
    Given that Obama is a rather unique and perhaps transformative candidate, finding someone who can complement him and perhaps help with his weak areas without diluting his message will be no easy task. Take Hillary, for example. Yes, she can bring the woman’s vote and all those who supported her and may now be a bit disaffected with Obama for the simple reason that he beat her, but as a consummate insider and legacy from the Clinton Years – and the Clinton Wars – she will certainly muddy his call for a new way of conducting politics and governance. So, whatever she brings she also may take away in independents and moderate Republicans to whom Obama appeals. One thing for sure, however, this will be interesting!


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