Up until now, the only real opposition to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders hopes to be the anti-Hillary option for progressives, as he fashions himself a socialist and hopes to appeal to primary lefties.
In reality, it is Webb who would be a more attractive option to Obama Democrats, many of whom still remember the way Clinton painted Obama as not-ready-for-primetime in 2008.
In 1996, East Elmhurst native and Vietnam veteran Robert Timberg wrote the seminal work The Nightingale’s Song. It chronicled five men who graduated Annapolis and then served in Vietnam: John McCain, Oliver North, John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, and James Webb. (Poindexter was career Navy, but not stationed in Vietnam.)
Timberg, who later went on to be an editor at the Baltimore Sun, writes a balanced history of these men and what their service entailed.
After Vietnam, Webb would be named Secretary of the Navy and later elected to the U.S. Senate. He has been a Republican, but is now a Democrat. He has always remained one of the most independent figures in modern politics.
He could pose a threat to Clinton’s campaign if his team takes the right approach. Webb has to paint the Clinton machine as the protester-generation of Democrats who lost the public debate to Reagan conservatism. He has to be the link between conservatives and pragmatic Democrats.
There is room for Webb in this race if he plays his cards right, but the climb will be uphill, something Marines like Webb usually do not mind.
Webb’s big challenge in this race, if he is serious, is that he does not have a history of being astute politically. He is not a good campaigner. He was only elected because incumbent Republican Senator George Allen imploded after making a racially insensitive remark.
Webb’s biggest strength is that he can appeal to middle America, but that also means that he has the propensity to say things that are off the cuff, which can be harmful in a sensitive campaign.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders are not in it for the long haul. They will “date” Sanders and ultimately “marry” Clinton. They want to say they went pious for a few months, only to jump to the winning side.
Webb’s supporters, if he can mobilize enough of them, are his for the duration. Clinton thought she had this locked up before, and was defeated by a younger, more charismatic candidate.
Obama did not have the mud of voting for the Iraq War on his hands, like Clinton. Likewise, when Clinton was protesting Vietnam, Webb was serving his country. When Bush engineered the Iraq War, Webb’s son was marching off to war.
He is the citizen you want to vote for, but likely will not. The challenge is for Webb to gain ground this summer. A lot of people served in Vietnam, and along with not treating our veterans properly when they returned, we also never elected one of them to the highest office in the land.
If Webb can gain yardage over the summer in the polls and make a showing in some of the bigger primaries, that may be enough to give the former Secretary of State the yips - again.