Is Jim Webb for real?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist

“I’m not running against Hillary Clinton,” Jim Webb told me this week, when I tried to draw him out on the presumed Democratic front-runner. “I’m not even running at the moment, and she isn’t, either.”

That’s all technically true, but Webb’s recent announcement that he was taking the first official step toward a 2016 presidential bid nonetheless set off a round of commentary about the contrast between him and his former Senate colleague. On the FiveThirtyEight blog, Harry Enten concluded that Webb could be “the ideal Clinton challenger.” Al Hunt of Bloomberg News said Webb could be Clinton’s “worst nightmare,” while William Greider wrote in The Nation that Webb might become “a pivotal messenger” for the left.

Such predictions are easily made and seldom remembered. They don’t tell you much about whether Webb, who has as varied an experience in public service and foreign policy as anybody else out there, can really mount the kind of semi-serious challenge to Clinton that Bill Bradley did to Al Gore in 2000, or whether he’ll end up being something more like this year’s Wesley Clark.

Webb has some things going for him, starting with unusual courage for a politician. He went through Vietnam, and he loves his second career as a writer of books and screenplays, and those two things have always seemed to make him more impervious to the consequences of conviction than most other politicians, who cling to their seats with a kind of irrational tenacity.

To Webb, there are worse things in life than losing an election or even being drummed out of your party, and that counts for a lot when you have a looming presence like Clinton who’s going to scare away most of her more obvious challengers.

And despite what he may say about not comparing himself to Clinton, Webb has the beginnings of a two-pronged progressive critique. On economic policy, Webb will say the party — personified by the Clintons — has been too much in the grasp of big financial institutions and too little beholden to wage earners. He’s a little like Elizabeth Warren this way, only with more backwoods steel than Cambridge preachiness.

He’s also a sharp critic of the foreign policies pursued by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which he says have led us into wars — and kept us in them — without clear objectives or strategies. This puts him squarely at odds with Clinton, the former secretary of state, who was known to be one of the administration’s more ardent interventionists.

Former US Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., gestures during a talk at the AP Day at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014.  Webb has formed an exploratory committee to look into his running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

All that will sound pretty enticing to liberals looking for some viable alternative, and it should. But then you come around to Webb’s long-held and thoughtful views on the party’s core theme of social justice. And here’s where that whole savior-of-the-left thing gets a little complicated.

Democrats, as you probably know, have been losing white voters, and especially white male voters, by pretty staggering margins in recent elections, particularly in rural parts of the country. According to exit polling, the party’s candidates won only 34 percent of white men last November; the 30-point spread between the two parties was the largest in 20 years.

Go to any activist meeting or liberal dinner party, and chances are you will hear a pretty consistent narrative to explain this trend. Basically, it goes like this: White men, and especially Southern white men, are just inherently racist and afraid of social change, and so they’re easily manipulated by Republicans and have turned their backs on Obama. But that’s really OK, because the demographics of the country are rapidly shifting, and very soon there will be enough black and Latino voters — not to mention women of all races — to tip the balance of any national election into the Democratic column.

Webb finds this theory downright offensive. In his view, Democrats have focused so much of their rhetoric and their programs on racial minorities that they’ve basically forgotten about all those white, working-class voters who face some of the same economic hardships but feel like all the focus is on the poor.

“I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?” Webb told me. “I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they’re being racist.”

Back in 2010, under a Wall Street Journal headline that referred to the “myth of white privilege,” Webb called for an end to federal affirmative action programs that arent need-based, saying they no longer helped African-Americans and only served to embitter white voters. More recently, including in our conversation, he has obliquely assailed “interest groups” that divide the parties by race.

Twice I asked Webb which interest groups he had in mind, but he demurred. “I think it’s pretty clear, if you look at the policies of the Democratic Party, how they shape their strategic agenda,” Webb said. I was left to conclude that he was talking about the influence of civil rights or pro-immigration groups (which seemed odd, really, since in reality those groups have about a tenth of the power that teachers, trial lawyers and organized seniors exercise over Democratic politics).

Before anyone on the left attacks Webb as a former Reaganite and closet conservative, it’s worth remembering that he isn’t saying anything all that different from what Bill Clinton told the liberal base on cultural issues in 1992. In fact, as a candidate, Barack Obama made a similar case for winning back white voters.

The thing is, both of those men had the luxury of running after their party had lost consecutive presidential elections, and when activists were willing to hear some hard truths if they added up to a winning strategy. This primary season will be a lot more like 2000, when the party’s liberal base was nearly erupting with pent-up fury from having to endure eight years of governing and all the ideological compromise that comes with it.

The last thing liberals want to hear right now (and especially after the recent uproar over police brutality) is that they’re too focused on racial equality and aren’t being solicitous enough to rural white men.

For this reason, mostly, I have a hard time seeing Webb as the pivotal messenger for a party still organized around 1960s notions of social justice. But that doesn’t mean he won’t have an impact, and it doesn’t mean, if you’re Hillary Clinton, that you shouldn’t be paying close attention.

Clinton’s allies in Washington have been trying for months to sell her — and the rest of us — on the idea that she won’t be seriously challenged for the nomination if she runs. This has never seemed very plausible to me, and it’s going to seem even less plausible once Webb starts running around the country picking apart her Wall Street connections and military adventurism.

At that point, other, more cautious potential rivals — like, say, Warren or a governor like Martin O’Malley — are probably going to see that there is, in fact, a market for a progressive alternative (there always is), and they’re going to think they can fill it better, because that’s what makes them politicians.

Where the courageous plunge in, others generally follow.