Webb in debate may offer a viable alternative to Clinton, Sanders
By Evan Lips | October 13, 2015, 16:28 EDT
A decorated Vietnam veteran, Jim Webb served as President Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary and enjoyed strong approval ratings as a Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, a southern swing state. Yet there is more to his story: He’s also won an Emmy award for his television journalism and written a best-selling novel and the screenplay for a major Hollywood film.
Despite his accomplishments, Webb hardly registers in surveys of likely Democratic voters: his support levels hover around 1 percent, leading Yahoo News to describe him as the “invisible candidate” in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Still, there may be good reason to keep an eye on Webb as he appears for the first time on a national stage with Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at Tuesday night’s debate in Las Vegas. If he can capture just a sliver of the limelight, Webb may distinguish himself as a viable alternative to either the self-avowed socialist or President Barack Obama’s first secretary of state. He may present a more appealing candidacy to moderate voters than Clinton, who has moved left to offset Sanders’s liberal pull, and he may draw more support from minority voters than Sanders, who has left some black voters feeling alienated, or from white men, who feel largely neglected by Democrats.
Consider the following excerpt from a December 2014 Washington Post column: “The media love to obsess about GOP deficiencies among women, Hispanics and blacks, but the Democratic Party’s complete alienation of white voters could be crippling for the party’s White House bid in 2016.”
Not so for Webb, whose views on many issues appeal to white men. He opposes creating more restrictive gun controls, citing citizens’ right to self-defense. He favors securing the border first and reforming immigration afterwards. Webb supports Obamacare, but has insisted the programs ushered in by the 2010 Affordable Care Act should be smaller in scope. Webb has also ripped the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal, saying the president’s negotiators didn’t squeeze enough concessions from Tehran and faulting the White House for skirting congressional approval.
Webb is no stranger to distancing himself from Obama, while Clinton’s efforts to do the same have surfaced only recently.
But Webb might also make in-roads with with minorities.
And long before Clinton, a former New York senator, backed the Iraq War with her Senate vote (and later condemned the Bush Administration for spearheading it), or before President Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, Webb (a former Marine) raised the uncomfortable question “whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.”
In sum, there’s a lot of meat on the Democratic front-runners for Webb to sink his teeth into.
Here are several other interesting facts about the candidate from Virginia:
He served as a Marine Corps platoon commander in Vietnam after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, winning a Navy Cross for heroism, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. He won an Emmy award in 1983 for producing a special report on Lebanon’s civil war for the MacNeil/Lehr NewsHour on the Public Broadcasting Service. He wrote the screenplay for the 2000 film “Rules of Engagement,” a military drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson that earned more than $100 million in box office sales. His 1978 novel about the Vietnam War, “Fields of Fire,” became a bestseller praised for its searing look at jungle combat. And that was before he got into politics.
Before being appointed Navy secretary, Webb served as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs in the Reagan administration. In 2006, he defeated a Republican incumbent, George Allen, to win a Senate seat in a state that hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. He honored his son Jimmy’s service in Iraq by wearing Jimmy’s combat boots throughout the campaign. Webb delivered the Democrats’ rebuttal to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. Webb announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate in 2011, shortly after turning 65, saying only that he would return to the private sector after serving a single term.
This year, Webb bucked a wave of emotional criticism over the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag in June by calling for “mutual respect” after the racially charged church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, in which images of the perpetrator showed him holding the flag.
For a man who has done so much, the silence from his campaign has not gone unnoticed. He’s only made one appearance in New Hampshire, for instance. Reporters from Yahoo News and the Mother Jones magazine have complained that his campaign spokesman, Craig Crawford, ignored their interview requests. And the communications strategy Webb has pursued hasn’t helped his campaign, apparently.
In three important swing states, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that few people knew Webb’s positions on the issues. According to the poll, 75 percent of Floridians, 81 percent of Ohioans and 84 percent of Pennsylvanians “haven’t heard enough about him” to form an opinion.
Those numbers could change significantly after tonight, if enough people pay attention to this accomplished yet unheralded candidate.
Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or @evanmlips on Twitter.