Jim Webb went to the White House last September. The Virginia senator was meeting with the president to discuss Guantanamo detainees. The conversation soon shifted to healthcare. "I told him this was going to be a disaster," Webb recalls. "The president believed it was all going to work out."[...]
"I've been warning them," Webb says, sighing, resting his chin on his hand. "I've been having discussions with our leadership ever since I've been up here. I decided to run as a Democrat because I happen to strongly believe in Jacksonian democracy. There needs to be one party that very clearly represents the interests of working people ... I'm very concerned about the transactional nature of the Democratic Party. Its evolved too strongly into interest groups rather than representing working people, including small business people."
This is a decades-old rebuke, one uttered today by moderate Democrats like Webb. The balkanized coalition never came to recognize the vice of its virtues. Diverse interests sometimes severed it from the majority's interests. That fissure moved political tectonics by the 1980s. And we came to know these migrating voters by the president who won their favor.
Webb is a Reagan Democrat who returned home. He was Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary. Almost two decades later, he was the Democrat who scrapped out a win in Virginia.
Webb seems less at home today. He identifies himself as a Democrat. But he has few Democratic leaders to identify with. He won't say this. His criticism is discernibly girdled. He begins to tell a story about a conversation with a Democratic leader and pulls back. "I don't want to talk about that," he mutters. "I have had my discussions. I've kept them inside the house. I did not want to have them affect this election, quite frankly. I didn't want to position myself in the media as a critic of the administration."
But criticism is in order. Democrats' suffered historical losses from Congress to the state houses last week. It's an apt moment for Webb to step in. He is an atypical politician. Politics is not his alpha or omega. He's authored more than half a dozen books, succeeded as a screenwriter and won an Emmy for his coverage of the U.S. Marines in Beirut. This success outside politics empowers him to be less political. Yet what suits Webb to criticism is not that. It's the political sociology he embodies.
Webb represents an endangered species. It's more than his red state Democratic stature, although that would be reason enough. The moderate House Democratic coalition lost more than half its lawmakers last week. But that Blue Dog set is still more common than Webb.
Webb's one of the last FDR Democrats. An economic populist. A national security hawk. His Democratic politics are less concerned with social groups than social equality (of opportunity, not outcome). His values were predominant in the Democrat Party from FDR to JFK, the period in the twentieth century when Democrats were also dominant.
Webb walks to this older Democratic beat. Today's Democrats' are more McGovern than JFK. (Could a John Kennedy win the Democratic nomination today?)
Democrats looked like McGovern on Tuesday. It was that bad historically, for congressional elections. The election's passage has liberated Webb (a little). He's privately raised issues throughout Barack Obama's tenure. Some frustration is tactical. He told Rahm Emanuel last June that the president should provide a "very specific format" for his vision of healthcare reform. It would have offset the, in Webb's words, "complex amorphous leviathan that bubbled up out of five committees."[...]
Webb swallowed the bitter pill in the end. He voted for the final healthcare package. He quickly notes that he's open to improving the legislation. These issues will dog Webb two years from now, when his term ends.
But is Webb running again?
"Still sorting that out," he replies. "I'm not saying I'm not."
Monday, November 08, 2010
Senator Jim Webb on Reagan Democrats
Senator Jim Webb recently spoke about why the Reagan Democrats still matter.