Jim Webb: The last Jacksonian Democrat

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 7:20 PM

Much of the focus on Sen. Jim Webb's retirement will be on how this might make the Democrats' already hard job of holding their Senate majority even more difficult. But more important than a single Virginia Senate seat is that Webb was one of a kind.

He was not only a Reagan Democrat who became a Republican and then came back. He was also a self-described Jacksonian Democrat. Democrats often speak at Jefferson-Jackson day dinners and mention Old Hickory, but it's hard to think of any of them being as steeped as Webb was in what it meant to be a follower of Andrew Jackson.

Here's how he once explained his philosophy and his decision to return to the Democratic fold to NPR's Renee Montagne:

I grew up in a family that was Democratic. And I went over to the Republicans, like a lot of people did at the end of the Vietnam War, based on national security issues. And again, like a lot of people, I was never comfortable with the Republican Party platform as it related to economic fairness and some issues of social justice.

The last book that I was writing ... [a] nonfiction book about the Scotch-Irish migration ... [was] basically about the creation of populist-style democracy in the United States, Jacksonian democracy. [It] caused me to do a lot of thinking about where both political parties are. And when I decided to run, I felt most comfortable with, shall we say, the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic Party. And this is why I decided to run as a Democrat.

Asked what Jacksonian democracy meant, he replied:

I think Andrew Jackson said it first, and said it best, when he indicated that you measure the health of a society not at its apex but at its base. You measure the true health of a society not by what the stock market is doing but what the average-wage earner is facing.

I don't think there are too many of us who are over here on the so-called populist side who want to see the American economy stutter; what we want to see is a much fairer distribution of the benefits of this economy.

This unusual clarity meant that when Webb was called upon to reply to President Bush's 2007 State of the Union message, he gave one of the best speeches of that sort ever offered. As I wrote at the time, such speeches are usually "mush" and "even the best of the genre reek of focus-grouped and poll-tested sentences. You have the feeling the words are dictated by some party pooh-bah who believes the speech will fail if it does not touch all the issues on every strategist's list." Webb, by contrast, spoke plainly, from the heart, and about only two issues, Iraq and economic inequality. "He didn't fudge on his language or try to take the hard edge off his impatience with the status quo." It's one of the only reply speeches anyone remembers.

It helped, of course, that Webb is himself a writer, and I hope he takes time out to write a book on what Jacksonian Democracy means for the 21st century. I suspect I wouldn't agree with him on everything. But Webb is sui generis, and I doubt anyone agrees with him on everything. That's what makes him so interesting. And his legislative monument, a GI Bill for the 21st century, is a perfect marriage of his concern for the men and women in uniform and his dedication to greater equality of opportunity.

As for the Democrats' chances of holding Webb's seat, my colleague Lee Hockstader has already offered a good analysis. Former Virginia governor Tim Kaine is the obvious candidate. He would have a decent shot at winning, and I suspect he will ultimately run. Kaine is at his best talking about the political basics (transportation, education and the economy), and within his party, he is unusually comfortable (and also moving) in talking about his religious faith. A debate about religion and politics between Kaine and the likely Republican candidate, former senator George Allen, would be fun and enlightening.

If Kaine doesn't run, I like the idea of former U.S. representative Tom Perriello taking a shot. Yes, Perriello lost his seat in south-central Virginia last year. But he held on to far more of his vote than most defeated incumbents -- and it's hard to think of any Democrat who had a tougher district. And Perriello has something important in common with Webb: He's independent-minded with interesting ideas that don't fit easily into anyone's philosophical boxes. In fact, some high-end media outlet should invite Perriello and Webb to debate the meaning of Jacksonian Democracy. They are two politicians who could pull that off. And it might give Webb a start on his next book.

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