Virginia Sen. James Webb made everybody's short list for vice president—except his own. He surprised the political world this week with a press release taking his name out of the running, a step that went beyond the coy expressions of disinterest expected from politicians who in reality are salivating for the job. His reasoning: he thinks he can accomplish more as a U.S. senator than he could as Barack Obama's running mate.
"This is where I can do a lot of good," he told an overflow crowd on a steamy Tuesday evening at Politics & Prose, a bookstore in northwest Washington. Disappointed questioners pressed him on his decision. "If not you, who?" one man asked, incredulous that Webb would reject a coveted spot if offered on the Democratic ticket, just in order to remain one of a hundred senators in a Congress so dysfunctional its approval rating is 13 percent. (The record-low rating prompted Sen. John McCain to quip, "We're down to blood relatives.")
But Webb may be on to something. Unlike other freshmen, including Obama, Webb has actually passed a substantial piece of legislation. The new GI Bill that he shepherded through the Senate extends educational benefits to Iraq veterans on the same scale the World War II generation received. He introduced the bill his first day in the Senate and 18 months later it passed with 58 co-sponsors in the Senate, including 11 Republicans, a rare achievement for a newbie to Capitol Hill. It wasn't easy. A lot of Republicans thought the bill too generous and too expensive. Veterans' groups had to be convinced as well. They aren't typically focused on education; their priorities are more immediate when it comes to government funds, like more help for sufferers of posttraumatic stress syndrome. Plus, Webb didn't have a key ally across the aisle. "McCain didn't like this bill, refused to support it, but we got it done," says Webb.
To grasp the full significance of Webb's accomplishment, you must understand the Senate and the fact that a freshman senator has about as much standing in the seniority-conscious body as an illegal alien, which is to say none. Webb likes to talk about how he brought all the veterans' groups together as though that were the key to his breakthrough. But bringing in the stakeholders is Legislating 101. What's different about Webb is not so much his approach but who he is, a Vietnam War hero, a former secretary of the Navy appointed by President Reagan, a best-selling author and novelist, a man who commands admiration and respect in a way that few of his peers do. "I'll still be around for Barack Obama," he assured the crowd of well-wishers crammed into the bookstore. The landmark GI Bill that garnered 202 sponsors in the House, including more than 90 Republicans, is a model for future legislation, he said, explaining how it could be applied to tackling energy policy and global warming (presumably with Obama in the Oval Office and Webb riding shotgun in the Senate).
One of the arts of public life is catching the right issue at the right time, which Webb certainly did with the GI Bill. The bill had come due for Americans and the politicians who represent them for laying the whole burden of the war on the men and women in the military. Tuition is a small price to pay for lives disrupted by war and the wounds of war. Webb had been working on veterans issues his entire life. The question is whether this success was a one-time occurrence. Can he repeat it? He made no apologies about wanting to get in on the next big issue of our time, which is energy independence, along with the environmental impact of man's action or inaction. "I'm not on any of the committees," he said, which means the equivalent of vaulting over a KEEP OUT sign to get involved. "I have an engineering degree," he went on cheerily. "I might as well use it. I didn't want it, they made me get it."
A long-ago engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy is probably not as valuable as the bond Webb appears to be forging with Obama. The first campaign stop Obama made after securing the nomination was with Webb in Bristol, an Appalachian community that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border. Webb has written about his Scotch-Irish ancestry, and these folks are his people. There was a lot of symbolism in the visit, and Webb came away thinking that Obama might be the one to bridge the gap with these voters.
With major players like Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd and John Warner exiting the stage, there are opportunities for younger members like Webb, 62, to grab leadership that in another time might take decades to achieve. One could say he's having more fun being Obama's soulmate than his running mate.