washingtonpost.com
Virginia's Senate Race
James Webb mounts an independent-minded challenge.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

THE U.S. SENATE race in Virginia pits a novice politician, Democrat James Webb , against a much more experienced one, incumbent Republican George Allen, who spent much of the early fall obliterating his reputation for amiable charm and political deftness. As Mr. Allen has partially admitted, his wounds in the close race have been mostly self-inflicted and have left a sour taste in the mouths of many Virginians. Still, there is an even better reason to vote against Mr. Allen: Quite simply, he is a mediocre senator whose six years of undistinguished service do not justify rehiring.

His opponent -- former Navy secretary, former assistant defense secretary, former Marine Corps officer and former Republican -- is admirably independent-minded. He was prescient in warning, back in 2002, that the war in Iraq risked stranding the United States in a long-term occupation without an exit strategy. An intelligent man with a record of integrity, he has resisted the packaging of political consultants, which can only be a good thing. Those assets, as well as his deep familiarity with military and national security affairs, offer the promise that he would make an able, if unorthodox, U.S. senator. And the fact that his youngest son is deployed as a marine in Iraq gives him a perspective that is rare in today's Congress.

Mr. Webb, a fine writer, remains in many ways a political work in progress. His impressionistic grasp of domestic policy generally and his passing acquaintance with Virginia issues in particular reflect his meager experience in electoral politics. His diagnosis of America's widening disparities in wealth and income is on the mark, but his fuzzy-headed attacks on free trade are the wrong prescription. As a candidate, Mr. Webb has had a steep learning curve; to his credit, he has acknowledged it.

Mr. Allen lacks any comparable independent-mindedness. He has spent his time in the Senate in lock step with the Bush administration, embracing tax cuts that have imperiled the nation's fiscal health; subsidies for oil and gas companies that hardly needed the help; prisoner detention policies that have undercut America's image abroad; and restrictions on embryonic stem cell research despite its medical potential.

At the same time, Mr. Allen has accomplished little for his state's most dynamic region, Northern Virginia. Other Republican members of Virginia's congressional delegation -- Sen. John W. Warner and Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf -- have played vital roles in advancing transit and other priorities while Mr. Allen was busy grooming himself for a possible 2008 presidential race.

Many of the initiatives that Mr. Allen has undertaken in the Senate are the easy stuff -- relatively noncontroversial measures that lavish money and favors on his constituents. Nothing wrong with that, if it's part of a broader record of accomplishment. But while Mr. Allen has proposed some worthwhile bills -- for instance, to expand investment in nanotechnology and to help historically black colleges and universities upgrade their telecommunications infrastructure -- his legislative contributions have been marginal at best. He is no one's idea of a heavyweight in the Senate.

Virginians deserve better and more enlightened representation. Mr. Webb offers that hope.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company