One of the most interesting, though so far least impactful, political developments of the last few years has been the migration of political candidates with military backgrounds to the Democrats' banner. In 2004, my first choice for the Democratic presidential nomination was retired General Wesley Clark; the nominee, of course, turned out to be John Kerry, who got there in considerable part due to his distinguished service record in the Navy during the Vietnam War. (The Republicans' achievement in turning Kerry's war heroism into a negative during the general election campaign has to rank as one of the greatest tactical triumphs in American political history.) This year, around 50 Iraq War veterans ran for Congress as Democrats; no more than a handful of these "Fighting Dems" are still in serious contention to take the oath next January, but the failures of Bush's Splendid Little War still could give the out party control of at least the House of Representatives next year.
Perhaps the most interesting Democratic candidate of this cycle, though, is former Marine, Reagan cabinet member, novelist and journalist Jim Webb, running for Senate against George Allen Jr. in Virginia. Here's a man who not only served with distinction in Vietnam, but went on to be Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He's about as far from a career partisan pol as one can get; as this New Yorker article puts it, "in Virginia’s 1994 Senate race [Webb] endorsed the Democrat Chuck Robb over the Republican Oliver North; he then backed George Allen over Robb in 2000; and now he [is] running against Allen for that same seat."
Like Wes Clark, Webb was a Republican for a large part of his adult life. His critique of the Democratic Party might not sit well with many of us, but understanding it and fairly appraising it remains crucially important to the long-term project of reviving the Democratic brand. Here it is, from the same New Yorker piece:
The unifying theme of Webb’s fiction, his popular history of the Scots-Irish, and, especially, his opinion journalism has been that of put-upon people (the military, Southerners, white men) suffering the smug disregard of a hostile élite. In the Webb reckoning, much blame resides in nineteen-sixties-era liberalism, which has influenced the Democratic Party for a generation. That he now finds himself a Democratic candidate in a pivotal U.S. Senate race is a development that proceeds, by its own stubborn logic, from this insistent theme. Webb’s candidacy is partly a quest to reclaim the Democratic Party for what he sees as a natural constituency.
When Webb deployed to Vietnam as a raw second lieutenant, in 1969, he had no particular political leanings. His mission was to protect the tactical space in front of him, and to bring back as many of his men as possible. Returning home, he felt that he and others like him had been driven from a Democratic Party that had, he believed, sacrificed a broad populist tradition to the passions of the intemperate margins. Webb proved to be a natural polemicist. He denounced “the ones who fled” the war, and inveighed against the acts of the Watergate Congress, which, elected after Richard Nixon’s disgrace, in 1974, halted funding to South Vietnam, hastening its doom. (The plight of the Vietnamese boat people came to have particular meaning for Webb. A girl named Hong Le was among those fished from the water by the U.S. Navy and transported to this country. She became a lawyer, practicing in Washington, and a year ago she became Webb’s third wife. She travels with him on the campaign trail, and is expecting their first child in December.) Webb declared Jimmy Carter’s blanket pardoning of draft resisters a rank betrayal and an abuse of Presidential power. When President Clinton left office, he wrote, “It is a pleasurable experience to watch Bill Clinton finally being judged, even by his own party, for the ethical fraudulence that has characterized his entire political career.”
Webb reserved a good portion of his pique for the “activist Left and cultural Marxists” and their efforts to effect “what might be called the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness.” He saw the Pentagon’s prolonged investigation of the Navy Tailhook sexual-abuse scandal in the nineteen-nineties as a political witch hunt, driven by a radical-feminist agenda to undermine the masculine culture of the military. Affirmative action, he posited, quickly became a means of victimizing white men through “state-sponsored racism.”
In “Born Fighting,” Webb developed the thesis that has become the rationale for his Senate run. Democrats, he argued, had foolishly written off the Southern white male, in the mistaken belief that it was a necessary cost of the Party’s leadership in the civil-rights era. Southern rednecks thus became a convenient symbol of all that impeded progress. “And for the last fifty years,” he wrote, “the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions in order to make them, at best, irrelevant to America’s future growth.” In alienating the South, Democrats ceded the region to Republican strategists, who took the trouble to cater to its culture. Webb, who had been a nominal Democrat in his youth, knew this from personal experience.
Personally, I wonder if Webb's problem with what he saw as the dominant Democratic ideology and worldview was the views themselves or the arrogance with which those views are expressed and how reflexively they are held. My strong suspicion is that if Webb had sat down with, say, Sam Brown, organizer of the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam and a deeply thoughtful person who'd accepted personal risk and sacrifice on behalf of his views, in 1974 or so, he would have had an interesting conversation and might have seen Brown's points about the war. But most of us don't judge a broad social movement by the personal attributes of the best people engaged in that movement.
If he wins, Webb will be an odd duck in the modern Democratic Party. He's a foreign policy realist more along the lines of James Baker and even Richard Nixon rather than either a liberal hawk or a neo-isolationist. On economics, he's a populist, almost a rabble-rouser, which would stand in contrast to both the reflexive free traders of the DLC and the somewhat more thoughtful and development-oriented free trade views of his fellow Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
Oddly, considering his "Born Fighting" bona fides and obvious belief that this race is of vital importance, Webb isn't doing close to everything he could be doing in order to win the election. His son is a Marine, now fighting in Iraq; Webb mentions this as rarely as he can. He's chosen not to go after his opponent, the odious George "Felix Macacawitz" Allen, for either his obvious idiocy (it's hard to imagine a greater intellectual gulf between two candidates) or the ugly revelations about Allen's character that turned this race from a walkover to a nailbiter; and as this clip shows, he still doesn't really know how to speak to a crowd. (Note the three minutes Webb spends recounting the reviews of his novels--astonishing.)
But there's no doubt in my mind that, one, this man is exactly the sort of person who should be serving in the Senate; and two, that his victory could yield greater long-term returns for the Democrats as a truly national and inclusive party than anyone else running this cycle. Here's hoping he pulls it out.