Monday, July 16, 2007

The Authenticity Paradox
Sunday morning I was up in time to watch Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) do verbal battle with Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina on the Tim Russert show. As is his wont, Webb was unscripted, unrehearsed, and devastating; as Graham tossed out one meticulously crafted talking point after another, Webb tore apart each of them. Carpetbagger has some highlights:

GRAHAM: Have you been to Iraq and — have you been to Iraq and talked to the soldiers?

WEBB: You know, you haven’t been to Iraq.

GRAHAM: I’ve been to — I’ve been there seven times.

WEBB: You know, you go see the dog and pony shows.

GRAHAM: I’ve been there as a reservist, I have been there and I’m going back in August.

WEBB: That’s what congressmen do. Yeah, I have, I have — I’ve been a member of the military when the senators come in.

GRAHAM: Well, all — listen, something we can agree on, we both admire the men and women in uniform. I don’t doubt your patriotism.

WEBB: Don’t put political words in their mouth.

I was so excited to see Webb defeat George "Felix Macacawitz" Allen last year not just because Allen is a snivelling racist shitbag, but because Webb is the sort of guy who can change perceptions of Democrats. A former Reagan administration official who voted for Bush--and Allen--in 2000, Webb left the Democrats over cultural and foreign policy issues during the 1970s after fighting in Vietnam, and came back thirty years later after realizing that his objections to Republican abuses of the military and idiocy on the world stage trumped those differences. (For his part, Webb also has pushed back on some social issues--gun control, which he vehemently opposes, in particular--and tried to pull the Democrats further to the left on economic issues, where he never felt comfortable with the Republicans. Elected to the Senate with other economic populists like Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey and Jon Tester, he seems to be having some impact in this area.)

As a decorated military veteran whose son is on the ground in Iraq, a novelist and journalist who has written extensively about war and fighting, and former high official (Secretary of the Navy under Reagan) in the defense hierarchy, Webb probably has more credibility on issues of war and peace than any other Democrat. As a political giant-slayer--a year ago, most figured that by now Allen would be a leading presidential candidate after easily winning re-election--who won in a state that's gone Republican in ten straight presidential elections--he seems a natural for vice-presidential consideration next year, regardless of whom the Democrats nominate for the top job.

But I can't see it happening.

The reason why I doubt Webb will be on the ticket is the same reason I think he'd be so good: he doesn't take direction. Webb refuses to muzzle himself in support of the Party Line. When he gave the Democratic response to Bush's state of the union speech in January, he was given a speech by party hacks; he threw it out in favor of his own, and got more positive press than any response address in memory. If he had any doubts that he was smarter than the established DC crowd--and I don't think he did--that experience surely erased them.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Webb said on Russert’s show yesterday was when he pushed back against Graham’s apologetics for “the surge.” Graham was talking about how the military had “taken back” Anbar Province because the population there had been won over by Petreus; Webb countered that what had happened was the population exacting “redneck justice” against al Qaeda in Iraq, which would have happened whether or not the Americans were present in force. Everything we know about Webb indicates that he’s not unsympathetic to notions like “redneck justice.” I believe that such a view probably resonates with the American electorate. But can you imagine Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisors taking on a guy who dares to voice such uncouth thoughts? David Broder might get upset!

I suspect that if you polled the public on which candidates were most and least "authentic," Hillary Clinton would come out at the bottom. Fairly or not (and I'd argue it's more fair than not), she is regarded as supremely scripted, endlessly packaged. Webb is not; watching him on Russert's show yesterday, he seemed sufficiently upset that I was actually a little worried he was just going to kick Graham's ass on national live TV.

But while we as a country crave authenticity--the perception of it is why the painfully unqualified Bush was close enough to Al Gore in 2000 to steal the presidency--the parties crave message discipline and predictability. Given the choice between a likely winner they couldn't control and a more dubious candidate who could be relied upon to stay on message, the professional class of politicals will take the latter. (John McCain, in his much more appealing "maverick" incarnation, would have crushed Gore in 2000.)

Given his perception and potential to make Clinton acceptable to some chunk of the 50 percent of the country that claims to hate her, Webb makes so much sense politically as Hillary’s running mate that maybe they’ll ask him anyway, and just sweat through the days waiting for him to say something that upsets their delicate stomachs. But I doubt it (and I doubt he’d accept second billing on a Clinton-headed ticket). They'd worry, with much justification, that the authentic #2 would overshadow the plastic-seeming presidential candidate.

Webb’s appeal just reminds me that the two-party system really does constrain our options and unacceptably narrow our choices. At this point, I plan to support the Democrats next year-–but my ideal really would be a Bloomberg/Webb ticket unfettered by all the political baggage and obligatory ass-kissing that goes with being labeled as Democrats.

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