A Reagan Man Reaches Out To Virginia Democrats

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

He was a varsity boxer at the Naval Academy, a Marine company commander in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy. He campaigns for the U.S. Senate wearing combat boots. He preaches loyalty and moral courage. If some Democrats accuse him of being insufficiently true to the party line, he pleads guilty and invites them to vote for someone else.

Jim Webb, who is running against Harris Miller for the Democratic nomination to face Sen. George Allen in Virginia this fall, portrays himself as a tough guy. His allegiance, he says, is not to party or platform but to the root ideals that bind Americans who long ago lost confidence in both parties. His favorite senators are men known for their propensity to break with their own party: the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Webb, who lives in Falls Church, has made his living primarily as a novelist and journalist, and he is betting that Virginians like what they got in Mark Warner and John Warner (who hadn't run for anything before he ran for Senate in 1978). Webb believes they are ready for another political novice. But Webb's path to high office is more difficult: He lacks the ex-governor's easygoing charm and the patrician senator's stately class. Webb can seem cold, gruff, perhaps a bit too self-reliant.

But if there is something too reminiscent of Ross Perot or Arnold Schwarzenegger about Webb's debut candidacy--a worry that he might be one more plain-speaking political neophyte with refreshing candor but not much savvy about the art of compromise--he is also reminiscent of New York's Michael Bloomberg or the District's Anthony Williams, outsiders who were elected mayor with no particular ideological baggage but with a reputation for independence and competence.

In a time of cultural cowardice, when politicians and leaders of other institutions are all too willing to divide the nation into more easily managed ethnic or interest groups rather than appeal to our common bonds, Webb insists on grounding his policies on this country's ideals -- and especially on its motto, "Out of many, one."

His best-selling book on the country's Scotch-Irish, "Born Fighting," is not just one more 21st-century celebration of separatism, singling out Webb's own ethnic heritage for praise. Rather, it is a tough, frank examination of one patch of the American quilt; each square gains meaning from the rest.

In a 1990 speech at Virginia's Confederate Memorial--a setting almost any sitting politician would avoid at all costs--Webb defended the idea of remembering those who fell fighting for the South. He challenged today's leaders to hear the call from "a million graves. It is simply this: You hold our soldiers' lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives or inflexible leadership."

Spurred on by a blend of rebelliousness and egalitarianism, Webb has switched parties and turned hard against the Bush administration's approach to the war on terrorism.

Webb grew up in a house where FDR was a hero, yet he never voted for a Democrat for president until he cast a ballot for John Kerry in 2004. In Webb and Miller's first debate, on a Norfolk TV station, the two spent an inordinate amount of time bickering like 11-year-olds over their support for Republican candidates. (Webb endorsed them, and Miller, as a Washington lobbyist, made donations to them.)

Now, Webb concedes that the whole issue is "not particularly relevant," but adds, "I had to defend myself." He says that half-heartedly, because the central argument of his campaign is that labels "don't mean anything anymore. What does it mean to be a liberal? A conservative?"

If he can get past the ideological purity test that party primaries have turned into--and past his rather thin grasp of local issues despite 38 years as a Virginian-- Webb wants to challenge George Allen with a campaign that rallies voters against the rising inequalities in American society and the mortgaging of both parties' souls to an international aristocracy of financiers and corporate executives.

Is Virginia ready to embrace someone who proposes to use a Senate seat as a bully pulpit from which to rail against the immorality of obscenely high salaries for top executives? Webb's image of independence and Teddy Roosevelt toughness would certainly sell well among the majority that put Mark Warner in office, as well as among the majority that keeps John Warner in the Senate.

But can Webb get to that stage? In next Tuesday's primary, can Webb get past Harris Miller's more traditionally liberal Democratic appeal?

"Either this will work or it won't," Webb says. "I'm not going to change who I am, not to raise money and not to get into office."


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