“We’ve become the office up here in terms of the reconnection with East and Southeast Asia,” Webb said. “We led that.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said Webb has been “very influential” on Asian policy, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), another committee member and fellow veteran, made a similar point.
“He’s taken a real keen interest and it goes back decades, and the interest is both to recognize the emerging strategic and economic impact of Asia, and do it in a thoughtful way,” Reed said.
When the United States restored diplomatic relations with Burma this year, a senior State Department official singled out Webb in a background briefing for reporters.
“He has pioneered many of these actions,” the official said. “He was one of the first senators on the ground pushing for the release of political prisoners, asking for the United States to engage actively. And I think [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton] wanted me to underscore our gratitude for his service not only in the Senate but basically as a diplomat in the Senate, and that has been significant.”
At times, Webb seems more likely to talk about water rights on the Mekong River and stability in the South China Sea than the James River or the Chesapeake Bay. Unlike many colleagues, he does not appear concerned about ginning up good press back home.
“It’s not glitzy stuff,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing you’re going to see on a talk show, but we’ve made enormous contributions in that area.”
‘Doesn’t really fit into either party’
Webb does make headlines — and sometimes the kind that lead to headaches for fellow Democrats. Republicans frequently invoke his departures from party orthodoxy to criticize Obama and, more recently, Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is running against Allen — Webb’s 2006 foe — to replace Webb.
A typical release issued in April by the National Republican Senatorial Committee was headlined: “Webb’s straight talk to Virginians continues to stand in stark contrast to Kaine’s unabashed support for Obama.”
GOP operatives regularly cite Webb’s long-standing opposition to raising taxes on ordinary earned income, which means — unlike Obama and Kaine — he wants all of the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire to be extended. But Republicans typically ignore the fact that Webb supports increasing capital gains taxes.
“The position that I have [on taxes] is heartfelt and it doesn’t really fit into either party, I don’t think,” he said.
Webb also has been used as a cudgel against the White House on health-care reform. Although he voted for the landmark legislation when it passed the Senate, he drew notice in April for saying that Obama’s handling of the issue “cost him a lot of credibility as a leader.”