Wait a Minute, Clinton Coronators—Here Comes Jim Webb

The R-turned-D Navy man and ex-senator is contemplating a 2016 run. He might not beat Clinton, but he’d be one tough sparring partner.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Democrats uneasy about a Hillary coronation may have help on the way from former Virginia Senator James Webb, who told an audience at the National Press Club on Tuesday that he is seriously considering running for president, that he wants “true fairness” in our society, and that he would give voice to those who've been left out and written off. His remarks sounded like a campaign speech delivered from a populist perspective, slightly right of center where Webb, a former Republican, is most at home and often straddles the two parties.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions among people I respect talking about the future of the country,” he said. “I want to see if there is support…We’re taking a hard look, and we’ll get back to you in a few months.”

After months of a seemingly frozen race as Democrats wait for Clinton to make her decision, there was speculation that yet another Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, might also join the fray, that he’s “bored” with being a senator and might run for president if only to audition for vice president. That’s how Joe Biden got Barack Obama’s attention in 2008.

While it’s unlikely that Manchin, who supports Clinton, would take that route, the positioning for the number two slot is underway. A Democrat who could return West Virginia’s five electoral votes to the Democrats would merit consideration from the party’s nominee along with Manchin’s other qualities, as co-chair of “No Labels” and someone who congenially works across the aisle. Manchin, a conservative Democrat and gun enthusiast, would presumably boost the party’s appeal to working-class men, as would Webb, balancing Clinton’s appeal among women should she be the nominee.

Webb told a labor audience in Iowa last month that he is the only person elected to the Senate with a union card, three tattoos, and two Purple Hearts. He served just one term, declining to run for reelection in 2012. He made known his disdain for the demands of retail politics as he returned to the more private life of a writer and novelist. He appears now to have changed his tune, saying in response to a question, “It’s a very tough thing to run for office, but it’s also the way the American people get to know you.”

Webb’s changed attitude about the rigors of running for high office is reminiscent of Democrat Walter Mondale’s memorable declaration in 1974 that he wouldn’t run for president because “I don’t want to spend the next two years in Holiday Inns.” When Jimmy Carter tapped him as his running mate, Mondale quipped that they’d all been redecorated. “They’re marvelous places to stay.”

For Webb, there is an opening for someone with a strong military background and no real ties to the Obama administration that would constrain him from an unvarnished assessment of the Democratic Party’s policies and performance. The author of 11 books, Webb’s new memoir, I Heard My Country Calling, may have stoked the fires of his political ambition once again.

Webb served up a scathing critique of the administration’s foreign policy, calling it “a tangled mess of what can only be called situational ethics.” He said there hasn’t been a clear statement of principles since the end of the Cold War, and “not surprisingly the American people have become more cynical about their leadership in both parties.” But in the Q & A period at the press club, when Webb was asked about President Obama expanding air attacks into Syria, he said that the United States can assert its national interest in that part of the world, but should never become an occupying force. Having opposed the invasion of Iraq, and also the military intervention in Libya, Webb warned against getting entangled on the ground in the “ongoing nightmare” that is Syria.

If Obama is acting on the basis of an international terrorist threat, “this is legal,” Webb declared, adding that “the question of judgment will remain to be seen.” He pointed out that over a year ago, he said that even without congressional authorization, “We have the right of self-defense under international law and the U.N. Charter. These types of limited raids are no different than what we’ve been doing in places like Yemen.” On Ukraine, he said Obama’s policy of sanctions and working with European partners is “the right way to go.”

What Webb offers is a sobering, moralistic way of looking at the world. He likes to pose Big Questions like, “What happens when the very character of America is being called into question?…What would it take to turn these things around… or are we just deciding it’s beyond the realm of government?… Did we have the courage to face these hard issues…or did we fail watching passively as the greatest nation on earth burns itself out.”

He quotes Gore Vidal, who said, “You never know when you are happy, you only know when you were happy.” He frames social justice issues around the life choices of a 10-year-old living in East Baltimore “going to the bathroom in a bucket because the landlord won’t fix the plumbing,” and a kid from Clay County, Kentucky, which is 90 percent white, who when he leaves home finds “an America that no longer understands your cultural journey.”

Then there’s the man or woman who’s done time in prison, and who is marked for life. The two political parties debate whether there should be a higher minimum wage, or government-supported pre-school, but what about a “Second Chance Program,” Webb asks, or do these people become “just another throwaway like the kid in East Baltimore or Clay County, Kentucky.”

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It’s tough stuff, delivered from an ex-Marine who stands ramrod straight, says what he means, and means what he says. Webb comes across with a clarity of expression that is rare for a politician and that the voters might find a welcome tonic. At the very least, he would make a thoughtful and high-minded sparring partner for Clinton in the debates that lie ahead.