The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In defeat, Jim Webb gets strange new Republican respect

As he suspended his dyspeptic and somnolent campaign for president, former Virginia senator Jim Webb rediscovered an old role: a source of pride for Republicans. Webb, a Republican veteran of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet who became a Democratic senator, is inspiring fresh punditry about how his adopted party abandoned him.

[Webb exits the Democratic presidential primary]

"He just wasn't making a connection with any significant constituency, certainly not with the groups in the identity politics of today's Democratic party," wrote conservative columnist and elections guru Michael Barone. "Webb's target was the ordinary citizens who support the Democratic Party as the alternative which does more for the little guy. His problem was that there just aren't that many voters who fit that description or think of themselves that way any more."

Richard Grenell, a Republican pundit and hawk who was spokesman for US Ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush, issued a series of tweets about the Democrats' supposed purge of Webb.

Some conservative praise for fallen Democrats is tongue-in-cheek, a way to goad the party's liberals. The Webb-philia is rooted in some sincere respect for the former senator. That started to crest last week, after CNN's Anderson Cooper asked every Democratic presidential candidate which "enemy you are most proud of." Hillary Clinton rattled off a list that ended with "the Republicans," a remark conservatives saw immediately as a gaffe. Webb named "the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me," then, with a grin, added that "he's not around right now to talk to."

[Meet the other three guys in Tuesday’s Democratic debate]

That drew many rounds of social media mockery — and conservatives got Webb's back. 

"Regardless of how you feel about his politics, Jim Webb served valiantly in combat," wrote Sean Davis in The Federalist. "He did his job. He willingly sacrificed his own safety and comfort in order to protect the men who served with him."

"It is a disgrace that to so many of our elites Webb should seem like a figure from another era, and for that matter an ancient and bygone and slightly disreputable one," wrote Bill Kristol in the Weekly Standard.

These encomia for Webb mentioned his domestic politics only in passing — perhaps because his politics rarely jibed with the modern GOP. In 2006, Webb ran for Senate as a "fighting Democrat," pushed back into public life because he'd warned against invading Iraq again. In the Senate, he was a reluctant star who spoke and wrote occasionally about the need for a more populist Democratic Party — one focused on economic fairness. In his 2008 book "A Time to Fight," Webb compared the United States to the Roman Empire, sliding away from greatness.

"The whole body of government, Emperor and Senate alike, turns its eyes away from the forces that are bankrolling its tenure while selling off the Empire for personal profit," he wrote. "The citizens, alternating between disgust, apathy, and fear, know that their way of life is unraveling before their eyes and see that their leaders ar eeither powerless or disinclined to act."

[In uphill 2016 bid, Jim Webb brings conservative bent to Democratic field]

During President Obama's first term, Webb provided reliable votes for the Democratic agenda, breaking only when his vote was not necessary for passage (or would not have saved a doomed bill). In 2012, after he'd already announced his retirement, his most powerful moments on the campaign trail came when he denounced Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remarks.

During his 2016 bid, nothing Webb said was outside the Democratic mainstream. He backed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline; so did key labor unions. He moved from criticism of gay marriage and a comprehensive immigration bill to (grudging) acceptance.

[Graphic: Who's winning 2016?]

But with the book closed on his Democratic presidential bid, Webb is embracing the narrative of an old-school populist left behind by liberals. "I fully accept that my views on many issues are not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party," Webb said in his concession remarks.

Republicans, happy to define the Democrats as the party of trigger warnings and democratic socialism, embraced that take. "He’d be a lot better as an independent than he would as a Democrat," said Donald Trump to the Boston Herald's radio show. "I watched [the debate] the other night, and he was not registering as a Democrat."