Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia, is running for president. At least he appeared to confirm as much this week, retweeting a link to a New Yorker article about several Democrats who hope to derail the Hillary Clinton juggernaut. "I do believe that I have the leadership and the experience and the sense of history and the kinds of ideas where I could lead this country," Webb declared to the magazine. "We’re just going to go out and put things on the table in the next four or five months and see if people support us. And if it looks viable, then we'll do it."
Though pundits eagerly pronounce on Hillary’s alleged inevitability, if anyone can take her down in a Democratic primary, it's Webb.
Foreign policy is Webb's main strength. Remember that during the storied 2008 Democratic presidential primary, the defining issue seized on with great effect by Barack Obama was then-Sen. Clinton's vote to authorize military force against Saddam Hussein. And wouldn't you know it, here we are again, embarking on another military offensive of indeterminate length — one that very much includes "boots on the ground."
By the time the 2016 Iowa caucus rolls around, the U.S. may well still be mired in Iraq and Syria (and who knows where else?). Clinton, as Obama's secretary of State, is widely reputed to have been one of the administration’s foremost interventionist agitators, producing disillusionment among anti-war grassroots Democrats who will probably take an active role in the primaries. This contingent is unlikely to accept the coronation of Hillary the Hawk without a fight.
Not only was Webb’s initial pursuit of elective office spurred by an aversion to the Iraq War, he went on to express doubts about subsequent U.S. incursions in Libya and Syria. While other Democratic politicians are often perceived as military-hostile coastal elites, Webb is a Vietnam War veteran and former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, as well as a journalist who has frequented warzones worldwide. So any attacks on his credentials in this arena will likely backfire.
Then there's domestic policy. With turnout at historic lows, the midterms showed that there is a swath of the electorate that neither party has tapped — voters made anxious by their precarious economic standing. Whereas Democrats foolishly staked their fortunes this past cycle on tin-eared culture war talking points (i.e. the "War on Women"), Webb has exhibited an aptitude for grasping the issues that transcend typical partisan paradigms.
Crucially, he appears willing to adopt an overtly antagonistic posture toward Wall Street. "The most important — and unfortunately the least debated — issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system," Webb tweeted last month. In that respect, he represents an antidote to the "boardroom liberalism" that has hobbled the Obama administration. And with all her "closed press" corporate appearances, $225,000 speaking gigs at public universities, and "listening tours" in the Hamptons, Clinton is not just a continuation of this mindset, but an unseemly entrenchment of it.
Beyond that, his primary area of interest as a senator was perhaps criminal justice reform, momentum for which has been building in the Democratic activist base for years now — just see last week's string of successful marijuana legalization initiatives. Webb's proposed commission to examine mass incarceration was ultimately blocked, but that he pursued it with vigor showed where his priorities lie.
Concerns about police violence and over-militarization also animate legions of young Democratic-leaning activists, among whom memories of the zealous nationwide crackdown on the Occupy movement are still fresh. Then there is Ferguson, which touched a raw nerve among blacks in particular. It will be difficult to balance respect for working class officers and their families with a condemnation of police corruption and overreach, but Webb is far better situated than Clinton to make that case.
Furthermore, Webb convincingly combines a gruff “Joe Sixpack" demeanor with a genuine appreciation for rapidly changing attitudes on social issues. He came out of a military milieu and thus retains the hierarchical mores associated with that culture, but Webb nevertheless forthrightly affirmed support for same-sex marriage on Meet the Press last month.
During his 2006 Virginia Senate run — back when Clinton and Obama still fervently insisted that marriage was "between one man and one woman" — Webb opposed a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that banned all same-sex unions. The measure still passed by 14 percentage points, which means that many social conservatives voted for both the victorious Webb and the ban, indicating his unique ability to garner support from non-conventional Democratic constituencies.
Democrats who are seeking a better way forward — and who want to avoid the dangerous "Clinton inevitability trap" — should turn their gazes to Webb.