James Webb: War hero, former US senator, presidential longshot

Former Virginia senator James Webb disdains Washington politics but is running for president. Can Webb make it as a populist maverick with conservative tendencies in a Democratic Party being nudged to the left?

Patrick Semansky/AP
Former Virginia Sen. James Webb speaks in Baltimore June 30, 2015. On Thursday, Webb announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Of all the 2016 presidential candidates who’ve entered the fray so far, James Webb may be the hardest to pin down.

He’s a highly-decorated Vietnam combat veteran who argued strongly against the latest American war efforts abroad. A Democrat who held high positions in the Reagan administration, he won a US Senate seat in Virginia, beating a Republican incumbent being talked about as presidential material, then declining to run for a second term after six years in office.

He’s a proud Southerner whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and who has a more nuanced view of the Confederate flag than do most politicians of either party scrambling to distance themselves from what is seen as a racist symbol. But he’s also a strong supporter of drug-law and prison reform, which would benefit many African-Americans prosecuted and imprisoned in disproportionate numbers compared to whites.

He’s a populist to the right of Hillary Rodham Clinton (certainly Bernie Sanders) on many issues, such as gun rights and the environment. 

He’s also the author of ten books (six of them novels) who taught literature at the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1968, and a journalist who won an Emmy Award for his 1983 PBS coverage of the US Marines in Beirut.

Last November, Mr. Webb announced that he was forming an exploratory committee regarding a possible bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. On Thursday, Webb made his candidacy official in a 2,000-word statement posted on his campaign website and on Facebook.

Nothing surprising in what he had to say there, at least to those aware of his personal and political history.

“We all want the American dream – unending opportunity at the top if you put things together and you make it, absolute fairness along the way, and a safety net underneath you if you fall on hard times or suffer disability or as you reach your retirement years,” Webb writes. “More than anything else, Americans want their leaders to preserve that dream, for all of us and not for just a few.”

He reviews his opposition to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and the use of US military force in Libya, which “did not meet the test of a grave national security interest.” (As a US senator and then secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton supported both actions.)

“The attack in Benghazi [which killed four Americans, including the US ambassador] was inevitable in some form or another, as was the continuing chaos and the dissemination of large numbers of weapons from Qaddafi’s armories to terrorist units throughout the region,” he says.

But Webb also makes clear that he is not an isolationist: “If I am elected as your President I can promise you that we will not accept China’s continuing military expansion and intimidation in such areas as the South China Sea. Nor will we be so fearful of our economic reliance on trade with China that we fail to protect our citizens in such matters as cybersecurity, where it is becoming increasingly apparent that the personal information of millions of Americans have been penetrated and breached, apparently by Chinese intelligence agencies.”

Several times in his announcement statement, Webb urges “economic fairness,” which he says should be restored “starting with finding the right formula for growing our national economy while making our tax laws more balanced and increasing the negotiating leverage of our working people.”

Webb’s best-known book is “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” essentially a history that includes his family, who emigrated to America and fought in every US war, including the Revolutionary War.

As a Booklist review notes, “Scots-Irish culture has produced American presidents from Andrew Jackson to Bill Clinton, soldiers from Ulysses S. Grant to George Patton, pioneers, preachers, and others whose most common characteristics may be described as fierce individualism, persistent egalitarianism, and a strong sense of personal honor.”

That, in essence, describes James Webb, who was a boxer at the US Naval Academy, and who commanded a US Marine Corps platoon and company in Vietnam, seeing fierce combat for which he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. In the Reagan administration, he served as assistant secretary of defense and Navy Secretary. He has a law degree from Georgetown University.

Can Webb make it as a  populist maverick (with strong conservative tendencies) in a Democratic Party being nudged to the left?

“The tired old categories need a reset,” writes Bill Kaufmann in The American Conservative. “Webb, who praises the ‘Southern redneck’ as ‘the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society,’ will be the most powerful voice in his party for drug-law and prison reform, an end to promiscuous military interventions, and closing the chasm between the plutocracy and the rest of us.”

One thing is for sure, Webb told the International Association of Fire Fighters earlier this year, “I think I can safely say that I am still the only person ever elected to statewide office in Virginia with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos.”

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