I haven't read the speech yet--I just downloaded it today--but given both my admiration (bordering on man-crush) for the guy and the fact that I come to this question pre-convinced from work I've done recently, I imagine I'll be fully behind Sen. Jim Webb's proposal this week to fundamentally reform the American prison system. Writing in Salon, Glenn Greenwald praises the Senator's courage and leadership in taking on an issue without obvious political upside, and makes a point that probably should be obvious, but isn't:
Our political class has trained so many citizens not only to tolerate, but to endorse, cowardly behavior on the part of their political leaders. When politicians take bad positions, ones that are opposed by large numbers of their supporters, it is not only the politicians, but also huge numbers of their supporters, who step forward to offer excuses and justifications: well, they have to take that position because it's too politically risky not to; they have no choice and it's the smart thing to do. That's the excuse one heard for years as Democrats meekly acquiesced to or actively supported virtually every extremist Bush policy from the attack on Iraq to torture and warrantless eavesdropping; it's the excuse which even progressives offer for why their political leaders won't advocate for marriage equality or defense spending cuts; and it's the same excuse one hears now to justify virtually every Obama "disappointment."
Webb's commitment to this unpopular project demonstrates how false that excuse-making is -- just as it was proven false by Russ Feingold's singular, lonely, October, 2001 vote against the Patriot Act and Feingold's subsequent, early opposition to the then-popular Bush's assault on civil liberties, despite his representing the purple state of Wisconsin. Political leaders have the ability to change public opinion by engaging in leadership and persuasive advocacy. Any cowardly politician can take only those positions that reside safely within the majoritiarian consensus. Actual leaders, by definition, confront majoritarian views when they are misguided and seek to change them, and politicians have far more ability to affect and change public opinion than they want the public to believe they have.
The political class wants people to see them as helpless captives to immutable political realities so that they have a permanent, all-purpose excuse for whatever they do, so that they are always able to justify their position by appealing to so-called "political realities." But that excuse is grounded in a fundamentally false view of what political leaders are actually capable of doing in terms of shifting public opinion [...]
Emphasis mine. I obviously agree, but I think Greenwald simplifies the story here in two ways: first, it's much easier to "affect and change public opinion" from the presidential bully pulpit than anywhere else, and indeed our most successful presidents from Jefferson to Reagan have carved out their places in history by doing this. But it's also not usually a matter of speaking truth to power, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington style, but rather moving the battleship by degrees over a period of (typically) eight years, such that by the end of a two-term presidency the middle of public opinion is well to the left or right of where it was at the beginning on questions of executive power, or slavery, or government intervention in the economy. Greenwald's stridency on this point suggests to me that he would have been as critical of the alleged equivocation and incrementalism and moral cowardice of Lincoln in 1861, or FDR in 1933, as he is of Obama today. The national mind never changes in a thunderclap of brilliant oratory; it moves in nudges, through compromises, and almost always with the wind of circumstance (Civil War, Great Depression, stagflation) at its back.
And so it is with Webb in this instance. He's not the president, of course, but he's making a case that would have been much more difficult to make two years ago, before the strain on public budgets made liberalizing corrections policy an economic imperative even for many who don't have a problem with overly punitive incarceration policies. And George W. Bush of all people gave him some political cover last year by signing the Second Chance Act, which signaled a new center of federal thinking around the moral claims of the prison population (around re-entry, in that instance). Not to take anything away from Webb, whose belief in prison reform goes back decades, and who really is taking a political risk in a law-and-order state where he won by the narrowest of margins--but to compare him to Russ Feingold in 2001, as Greenwald does, seems to stretch the point.
Greenwald's thought about why Webb is taking this unusually brave stand is maybe more interesting:
It may be unrealistic to expect most politicians in most circumstances to do what Jim Webb is doing here (or what Russ Feingold did during Bush's first term). My guess is that Webb, having succeeded in numerous other endeavors outside of politics, is not desperate to cling to his political office, and he has thus calculated that he'd rather have six years in the Senate doing things he thinks are meaningful than stay there forever on the condition that he cowardly renounce any actual beliefs. It's probably true that most career politicians, possessed of few other talents or interests, are highly unlikely to think that way.
I suspect this is exactly right, and that Jim Webb's self-image is bound up with his lofty office to a lesser extent than just about all of his colleagues. As a much-lauded soldier, novelist, journalist, and filmmaker at different points of his career, as someone who'd voted in 2000 for the guy he ran against and defeated six years later, he's probably both less institutionalized and less partisan than anyone else up there. It wouldn't shock me if he didn't even run again in 2012; my guess is that Webb came to the Senate thinking he would do three or four things, including an updated GI Bill (done last year) and prison reform and maybe some things on economics, and then retire to write more books. This isn't to say that he doesn't have an enormous ego like the rest of them, but it's based on other things.
Public officials like Webb or Mike Bloomberg or arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger seem to operate from a different starting point. Certainly Bloomberg and Ahnuld are different creatures, careening wildly across the ideological map and gratifying and pissing off just about everybody at one point or another. But they all do seem to have more appetite for big challenges and political risk-taking than their more traditional and career-oriented colleagues. And it's perhaps not a coincidence that none of them has ever lost an election.