SAN DIEGO – Jim Webb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia, likes to joke that he is probably the only person ever elected to statewide office in the Old Dominion who has “a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos.”
Now, as the fifth candidate to vie for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Webb is aiming to become the first commander in chief with those possessions – along with many other credentials. The highly decorated combat veteran, who led a Marine Corps platoon and company in Vietnam, went on to serve as assistant defense secretary and secretary of the Navy. His other medals include the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. He has also written 10 books (including six novels), taught literature at his alma mater (the United States Naval Academy), won an Emmy Award in 1984 for reporting he did on U.S. Marines in Beirut in as a journalist for PBS, and earned a law degree at Georgetown University. He’s the real deal.
Yet, when I was asked recently by a television producer what I thought Webb brought to the presidential race, the last thing on my mind was his resume. Rather, what occurred to me were the various constituencies – including Democrats and independents – that Webb might appeal to that are being ignored, feel they have no voice or haven’t found a candidate they can support.
The media don’t get it. The narrative I’ve seen is that Webb speaks for “Southern whites” – the kind of folks who, the rest of the country assumes, want to roll back affirmative action and save the Confederate battle flag.
It’s much more complicated than that. There are at least five different constituencies that might embrace someone like Webb:
▪ Blue-collar workers. If you’re in a union and you worry about being pushed out of your job by a trade deal that undermines American workers or you fear having to compete with newly legalized immigrants who take jobs and lower wages, then you’re going to be leery of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment. You want someone who fights for you. Webb could step into that role.
▪ Those who want a “Plan B.” Even if you support Clinton, you might still worry that she can’t go the distance. Polls show that many Americans don’t trust her, which is a likely response to multiple scandals involving everything from deleted emails to questions surrounding the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. If you feel like the revelation that torpedoes the Clinton campaign is just around the corner, you might consider Webb a safer bet.
▪ Conservative Democrats. While our politics are polarized, we used to have liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Webb is the latter. Among Democrats, Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are racing to the far left. Conservative Democrats might feel as if they have no good choices. Webb gives them an option to stay in the party.
▪ The ABH (“Anyone But Hillary”) crowd. There are Democrats who are not anxious to usher in another Clinton era. They want fresh blood, and so they’re now supporting other candidates. For Democrats who are tired of dynasties and think the way to beat someone like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is to nominate a candidate who believes the presidency should be merited not inherited, Webb could be appealing.
▪ Finally, the strategists. In 2012, Democrats defined Mitt Romney as rich, privileged and detached from reality. Now, if Clinton wins the nomination, it will be the Democratic candidate who – with her husband – is estimated to be worth between $100 million and $200 million. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the son of a bartender and hotel maid. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is the son of a pastor and part-time secretary. And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had parents who ran a restaurant and pool hall. Democrats need a candidate who can counter the populist appeal that this crop of Republicans could generate. That’s not Clinton. It could be Webb, who grew up in a military family.
For the media to ignore all this, and boil down Webb’s candidacy to crass racial politics and an attempt to give voice to Southern whites is an insult – not just to Webb but to the remarkable country that he has spent much of his life serving and defending.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.