James Webb, a decorated Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a former Democratic Senator from Virginia, has declared himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.
He is an interesting candidate with an unusual background. His biography is complicated, but it has a common thread.
Webb has tried to be the champion of blue-collar working men—the troops who are sent overseas to fight, factory workers whose jobs are being lost to Japan (in an earlier era) and China and especially his own ethnic group, the Scots-Irish settlers of 18th century Appalachia.
While I seriously doubt that the Democrats or the nation are ready for his brand of politics, I would readily vote for him in preference to Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker or almost any of the other current Democratic and Republican candidates.
Webb was born in 1946 into a military family. He attended UCLA on a Naval ROTC scholarship for a year before being admitted into the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1964, from which he graduated in 1968 with honor.
He served as a platoon commander in Vietnam, and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. He has shrapnel in his knee, kidney and head; his knee wound led a medical board to order his retirement.
He worked on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and attended Georgetown University Law School, from which he graduated in 1975.
He wrote Fields of Fire, which was published in 1978 and five other war novels, the last published in 2002. I read the first four. They are highly readable. Their themes are the grim courage of American troops under fire, and how the troops are undercut by elitist liberal intellectuals and opportunistic politicians.
He wrote a famous article, “Women Can’t Fight”, in 1979, opposing the use of women troops in combat and, specifically, admission of women to the Army, Navy or Air Force academies.
I think he was right on the merits, but he was, as they say, on the wrong side of history.
He became Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Reserves in 1984 and Secretary of the Navy in 1987. He resigned the following year in protest against the Reagan administration’s plan to downsize the Navy. He advocated a larger Navy.
But in 1991, he opposed the elder President Bush’s military intervention against Iraq and, in 2003, he opposed the younger President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He didn’t oppose the wars on principle. He didn’t thing either President Bush had a coherent strategy.
During the same period he became disillusioned with the Republican economic policy. He came to feel that the real enemies of working America were Republican CEOs who shipped jobs abroad.
He ran for U.S. Senator from Virginia in 2006 as a Democrat, in what was regarded as an upset victory. He said he was the first Senator in the history of Virginia to have a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos.
His first action in taking office was to introduce the Post-911 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which was an effort to give current veterans the same benefits as World War Two veterans under the original G.I. Bill.
Although opposed by the Bush administration, it passed with bi-partisan support and a veto-proof majority.
He introduced legislation to limit re-deployments of troops by requiring that they spend as much time at home as they do in battle. He also introduced legislation to prohibit use of military force against Iran without prior Congressional approval. Both of these failed.
Webb was one of the first Senators to raise the issue of massive incarceration of African-Americans and to question the so-called war on drugs.
He declined to run for re-election in 2012. Some reports at the time said he disliked politics, but I suspect he was disillusioned with the Obama administration and its pro-Wall Street policies.
As an announced candidate, Webb expressed reservations about the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran. He also sees a need to meet the military challenge of China. My guess is that his animosity toward China is based more on the shift of U.S. manufacturing jobs toward that country.
Webb held back from denouncing the Confederate battle flag following the Charleston murders. Here’s what he said.
This is an emotional time and we all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War.
The Confederate Battle Flag has wrongly been used for racist and other purposes in recent decades. It should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us.
But we should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, including slaveholders in the Union Army from states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, and that many non-slave holders fought for the South.
It was in recognition of the character of soldiers on both sides that the federal government authorized the construction of the Confederate Memorial 100 years ago, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
This is a time for us to come together, and to recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect.
This statement reflects an incomplete understanding of history. Webb was simply being loyal to his ethnic group and its symbols. Unfortunately getting on the wrong side of a symbolic issue can be more politically damaging than real wrongdoing. He probably knows this, and doesn’t care. That is his strength and weakness.
LINKS [added 7/8/2015]
The Bizarre Mystery of Jim Webb’s Presidential Campaign by Kevin Lincoln for Vice news.
What does Jim Webb believe? Where the candidate stands on 10 issues by Lisa Desjardins, Elizabeth Summers and Anya Van Wagtendork for PBS Newshour.
Why Jim Webb Is the Most Interesting Candidate in the Democratic Primary by Jimmy Soni for the New York Observer.
Will Jim Webb be the Democrats’ Anti-Hillary? by James Carden for The American Conservative.