As political handicappers weigh the impact on next year’s elections of Senator Jim Webb’s decision not to seek a second term, this much is certain: His departure will leave the Senate a less interesting place.
Webb is an original: Annapolis graduate, decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam, acclaimed novelist, Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan and, following his improbable 2006 victory, Democratic Senator from Virginia.
Improbable not just because he started way behind, but also because he had previously been a Republican; because this erstwhile warrior rode a tide of anti-war sentiment to victory; and, because he is anything but a natural politician. A private, self-contained man, Webb does not lust for the limelight or feed on public adoration. He doesn’t like to press the flesh or ask fat cats for money. He is essentially a writer whose political model was the late intellectual-turned-legislator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
While marching to his own beat, Webb has quietly made his mark in the Senate over the past four years. He successfully pushed an expansion of G.I. Bill-style benefits for veterans, and drawn attention to an issue that isn’t on the nation’s political radar but should be: America’s overstuffed prisons and indiscriminate sentencing policies that lock up too many non-violent offenders. Following his own passions, Webb has specialized in foreign affairs, focusing especially on East Asia.
Also like Moynihan, Webb’s outlook has been shaped by a strong ethnic consciousness. Just as Moynihan drew on his Irish background in his studies of the ethnic melting pot, Webb, in Born Fighting and other books, has chronicled the Scots-Irish experience in America. Settled on the America frontier, Scots-Irish Protestants pushed relentlessly westward, battling Indians (and Mexicans) along the way. They form the core of a genuine warrior culture that, argues German writer Josef Joffe in Uberpower: the Imperial Temptation of America, has mostly disappeared from Europe but remains a key element of American exceptionalism.
Webb’s departure will be a significant political loss for Democrats, but not because it may put his Senate seat in jeopardy. More fundamentally, Webb is a rarity in today’s contemporary Democratic Party: a leader with an intuitive feel for the interests and values of white working class voters. Once the mainstay of the progressive New Deal coalition, their defection to the Republicans led to a generation of GOP ascendancy in national politics.
More than most Democrats, Webb has thought hard how about to win them back. He has chided his party for exhibiting anti-military attitudes, and for pushing economic policies that favor elites who profit from globalization to the detriment of working families, whose incomes have stagnated as good jobs have vanished over the last two decades. Bravely, he has taken on the “diversity” industry that promotes group preferences in hiring, government contracting and college admissions, even for recent female and minority immigrants who can by no stretch of the imagination be classified as victims of U.S. racism.
As it happens, the modern Democratic Party emerged under Andrew Jackson, America’s first Scots-Irish President. The “democracy” as it was often called was the party of ordinary people, while the Whigs represented economic and social elites. Much of middle America now feels estranged from the party of the people.
That’s an existential dilemma for progressives, not just a political problem. Jim Webb understands that, which is why I’m sorry to see him go.