Jim Webb won many new fans with his performance in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate. The problem for him is that they’re mostly in the other party.
It’s true – GOP pundits and ordinary voters alike seemed surprisingly impressed by the former Democratic senator from Virginia. On social media, there was lots of speculation as to maybe, just maybe, Mr. Webb might decide to chuck this Democrat thing and cross over to run in the other side’s race.
“Republicans, let’s take a second look at Jim Webb,” ran the headline on a post at right-leaning RedState.
Why the enthusiasm? Republicans thought Webb sounded like a Republican, raised Republican issues, and talked tough, that’s why.
At the conservative National Review, Jim Geraghty wrote that Webb talked about the effect of affirmative action on poor whites, the need to respect gun owner rights, and the danger from threats Democrats don’t generally acknowledge, such as China. Webb told Bernie Sanders that Congress would be unlikely to vote to pay for all his expensive proposed social programs. In general, he seemed like an old-line Southern Democrat, said Mr. Geraghty.
“Webb has a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination in 1948. You almost have to wonder how Webb would be doing in the GOP presidential primary,” he wrote.
Then there was Webb’s closing-moment answer to Anderson Cooper’s question about what enemies the Democratic contenders were proudest they’d made. While most of the Dems on stage referred to lobbyists or other political actors, Webb’s was personal. A Marine officer who fought in Vietnam, Webb mentioned an enemy soldier who’d thrown a grenade that wounded him.
“He’s not around to talk to right now,” Webb said, pointedly.
Some pundits found this answer creepy. A presidential hopeful openly talking about killing a man during wartime, and giving a half-smile while doing so? Perhaps it was a bit jarring in the context.
But others thought it tough, and a reminder that Webb had served his country when called.
“There was probably a time when liberal voters would have been impressed by someone who had served his country so valiantly.... Twenty-five years ago he might have been a star,” wrote David Harsanyi in the right-leaning The Federalist. “Today? He’s a man completely out of touch with the philosophical temperament of his party.”
Webb’s real problem might be that he’s out of touch with both parties. In an era when partisanship has sorted Democrats and Republicans into relatively homogenous ideological groups, Webb is not easy to pin down.
He is conservative on many issues, and indeed, served President Ronald Reagan as a high-ranking Pentagon official. But at Tuesday’s debate, he also noted he’d have “no problem” with undocumented immigrants having access to Obamacare. On some economic issues, he is a populist closer to Bernie Sanders than Jeb Bush.
Still, if the GOP really wants the ratings for its next debate to explode, the Republican National Committee should invite Webb to participate on grounds of partial affinity. Imagine the ex-Marine dealing with Donald Trump’s half-answers on foreign policy. It could solve the party’s Trump problem, once and for all.