Washington Bureau

05.20.14

Jim Webb's Quixotic Hints About 2016

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb left the door open to a presidential campaign on Monday but it's hard to see any path to victory for Webb or any other relatively conservative Democrat in a presidential primary.

The list of potential Democratic challengers to Hillary Clinton is growing but not exactly getting more formidable.

On Monday, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb left the door open to a presidential bid in a radio interview on NPR. Webb is a Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration who ran upset incumbent Republican George Allen in the Democratic wave of 2006. Webb then tired of the Senate and decided not to run for re-election in 2012. Not coincidentally, Webb, who did make an appearance in New Hampshire over the weekend, is also promoting a new book.

On Slate, Dave Weigel offers a laundry list of reasons why Webb would face political obstacles against Clinton, including the fact that he’s older than her and his authorship of an article called “Why Women Can’t Fight.” Webb’s biggest problem aren’t his own personal faults, it’s that he’d be taking a path to the Democratic nomination that doesn’t exist any more, running as a relatively conservative Democrat to the right of the rest of the potential field.

Candidates who have tried to occupy that center-right niche in a Democratic primary fizzled in the past few presidential elections. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner, both of whom seriously considered presidential bids in 2008, backed off. In 2004, Joe Lieberman’s campaign was an epic disappointment. It was perhaps best typified by his staffers’ struggles to find kosher food to eat at the Iowa State Fair (after all, pork chops on a stick don’t cut it). They found a deep-fried Twinkie, not realizing until later that the filling in the middle was made with rendered beef fat. Soon afterwards, the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2000 pulled out of Iowa and focused on New Hampshire where he finished “in a three way tie for third,” better known as fifth place.  And while Webb’s political views are far more idiosyncratic than Lieberman, Bayh or Warner, he would still be appealing to the same spectrum of the Democratic primary electorate (albeit with the ability to use pork chops while campaigning).

One can easily parse out tranches of voters to whom Webb could have some appeal to early states, like the remaining yellow-dog Democrats in upcountry South Carolina or rural Democrats in the parts of southern Iowa that more closely resemble Missouri than the Midwest. But even the most optimistic projection doesn’t give him a path to the nomination. While there is room to Hillary Clinton’s left, which at least one candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is exploring, there doesn’t seem to be a niche for any candidate on the Democratic Party’s ideological right in 2016, which is why the only person making noises about occupying that space is an ex-senator selling a book.