RICHMOND — Former senator and potential presidential candidate Jim Webb told an audience in Richmond on Tuesday that the Democratic Party has lost white working-class voters by becoming “a party of interest groups.”
“The Democratic Party has lost the message that made it such a great party for so many years, and that message was: Take care of working people, take care of the people who have no voice in the corridors of power, no matter their race, ethnicity or any other reason,” Webb said. “The Democratic Party has basically turned into a party of interest groups.”
Webb made his remarks in his first speech since announcing two weeks ago that he had formed an exploratory committee and begun raising money for a possible presidential run. He was speaking at AP Day, an annual forum sponsored by Virginia-based news organizations and hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Webb is among a handful of Democrats challenging the idea that the party’s presidential nomination is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s for the taking. Webb twice declined to answer questions about how he stacks up against the former secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady, who is widely expected to dominate the Democratic field if she decides to run.
But Webb clearly set out to define himself as an alternative in a party that he said had grown too cozy with special interests and too unfocused on the downtrodden. He said Clinton would not factor into his thinking as he mulls over whether to run “over the next few months.”
“We’re making this decision based on our own analytics,” he said. Pressed about his timetable, he said only, “The decision will come when I feel comfortable with it.”
Democratic strategist Kristian Denny Todd, who accompanied Webb to the event, was vague about any plans Webb has to travel or meet with people as he weighs his decision. She said he was “just feeling it out, making some stops along the way. We don’t have anything planned specifically now.”
Webb, 68, is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was Navy secretary under Republican President Ronald Reagan and served in the Senate as a Democrat. He announced an exploratory campaign by way of a bare-bones YouTube video. His hour-long appearance in Richmond was similarly no-frills. He opened with a professorial mini-lecture on centuries-old immigration patterns that helped form the foundations of the culture and politics of modern Virginia.
From there, Webb shifted to the broad issues he said were fueling his desire to return to political life: a feeling that national security has been “on autopilot” since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; a need to “reshape the military” and to “debate the power of the presidency when it comes to the unilateral use of military force around the world”; and a desire to promote social justice through “economic fairness” and improved prisoner reentry programs.
Webb has visited early presidential caucus and primary states. In September, he announced that he was taking a “hard look” at a run. In the video released last month, he struck a populist note that could help set him apart from Clinton, who has close ties to Wall Street.
During his remarks Wednesday, Webb recalled the enduring bond forged between his Depression-era forebears and the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He said his mother was raised in “utter poverty” in Arkansas, where his widowed grandmother took feed corn from area fields to keep her children from starving. He said Roosevelt’s New Deal programs lifted the family’s fortunes.
“People remembered that Roosevelt cared about the people who had no hope, and that’s what needs to happen again in this country,” he said.
Clinton supporters have begun to worry about the threat posed by Webb and other Democratic hopefuls, including Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren has said that she is not running, but she has a strong populist following.
During a question-and-answer period with reporters, Webb was asked whether he would make reducing the federal debt a priority.
“I think certainly we need to tighten the federal budget where appropriate,” he said. “One of the things that could be early on is to basically audit every federal agency in terms of their programs and have them re-justify programs.”
He said he would work with people on both sides of the aisle to try to reduce the national debt, but he also noted that Reagan approved increases in the debt several times and recalled that debate over the debt “almost pushed the economy over a cliff” when he was in the Senate.
“I care about fiscal responsibility. I think we need to look at tax reform overall in a streamlined way,” he said. “I personally would support the notion of reducing the corporate taxes, eliminating loopholes and, at the same time, increasing capital gains taxes.”
Webb offered a mixed review of the Affordable Care Act. He said that the legislative process and mid-recession timing were bad but that he voted for final passage because he agreed with the goal of providing health care to more Americans. Again invoking his mother’s impoverished childhood in eastern Arkansas, he said three of her siblings died for lack of medical care.
“Doing something, at that point, was better than doing nothing,” he said when explaining what he described as “the hardest vote I took in the Senate.”
On immigration, Webb said he believes that President Obama has the legal authority to postpone the deportation of about 5 million people for three years. But he also said the nation needs a comprehensive strategy to address illegal immigration.
“Not simply things like putting up a fence, but really what should our policies be?” he said.
Webb’s positions on various issues defy easy classification, embracing an unpredictable mix of liberal and conservative stances. (In his announcement video, Webb slammed economic inequality and “government intrusion.”) O’Malley, Warren and Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent, could be expected to challenge Clinton from the left. Webb, an economic populist who has also been a critic of affirmative action, would make his case from the left and the right.
Some observers give him little chance if Clinton gets in the race. But Webb has won as an underdog before. Jumping in late, he pulled off a surprise win in the 2006 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, defeating businessman Harris Miller. He went on to oust then-Sen. George Allen (R) in the general election, an upset assisted by Allen’s use of the racial slur “macaca.” During the campaign, Webb pushed an antiwar message and wore combat boots belonging to a son serving in Iraq.
Webb served just one term in the Senate but pulled off the passage of a hefty piece of legislation — a GI bill that expanded educational benefits. He also supported sentencing reform, an issue that could resonate with African Americans, an important part of the Democrats’ base.
Webb did not run for reelection in 2012. A reporter, noting that Webb had been “a reluctant candidate” even in 2006, wondered how Webb would put up with the rigors of a presidential campaign that could entail “300 nights at a Holiday Inn.”
Webb said proudly that he is “not a career politician” but that if he decides to run, he will be all in. “If I do commit myself to something, I will commit myself 100 percent,” he said.
He was also asked whether he thought it would be a disadvantage to him that some of the state’s most prominent Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, were already backing Clinton.
“Frankly, no,” Webb said.