The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jim Webb and the Democrats’ white-man problem

In this Dec. 3, 2014, photo, former Virginia senator Jim Webb (D) speaks at the capitol in Richmond, Va., on Dec. 3. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Some think Jim Webb could be the liberal Democratic alternative to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Perhaps it's more likely, though, that Webb could position himself as something the Democratic Party — or any party, really — hasn't seen in some time: the vocal champion of the working-class white man.

The former Virginia senator offered this critique of his party to Matt Bai over at Yahoo!, and it sounds like something that you might hear on the campaign trail going forward.

“I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?” Webb said. “I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they're being racist.”

Rather than run as a liberal (which he is not, in a whole host of ways), Webb could run as a kind of anti-Hillary. He would be an explicit counter to the sort of progressive, feminist narrative that would inherently undergird a Clinton run.  He would also be the anti-Obama, a break from the sort of identity politics around race, gender and ethnicity that have, in Webb's telling, excluded working-class white men.

(A white woman running for president after the nation's first black president could certainly underscore the "what about us" feeling among this demographic.)

This group has been something of the topic du jour lately, with a decades-long decrease in manufacturing jobs and an identification with the Republican Party so apparent in the midterms that it has left Democrats looking for answers (again).

President Obama weighed in on the plight of the working-class whites in an NPR interview, saying: "There's a legitimate sense of loss, particularly among men, who have seen manufacturing diminish; construction has been in the tank."

You know, part of my responsibility then is to communicate directly to those voters. And part of the Democratic Party's job is to communicate directly to those voters and say to them, "You know what? We're fighting for you."

Webb, who won a Virginia Senate seat by the slimmest of margins in 2006, suggests that he is the Democrat who can communicate directly to those voters. Webb's "whipping post" construct also appeared in a 2010 piece for the Wall Street Journal called "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege." In the piece, he argued against race-based diversity programs like Affirmative Action and said that poor and working-class Southern whites have been ignored by policy-makers and lumped together into "a fungible monolith." He wrote about the lack of college degrees in this group, painting a more diverse picture of white America.

Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.

He said to Bai that white working-class men are from "inclusive cultures, they are dignity-driven cultures, honor-driven cultures," and that they vote Republican because "at least they see that there they will have some respect and some response."

So how well did he do with the white male voters in 2006?  Well, about as well as any of the Democrats who have run in Virginia in recent years, according to data pulled by Scott Clement, one of our polling guys. He lost those voters like other Democrats — and by similar margins.

In his very overt focus on working-class white men, Webb is doing something other politicians from both parties have only done in code. (Clinton's "Sister's Souljah" moment is an example. The title of Mike Huckabee's new book, "God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy" is another.) Rarely has any politician with national ambitions talked about white cultures and poor and working-class white people in this way. When Paul Ryan wanted to talk to poor people, he toured a black neighborhood in inner-city Indianapolis, not a white rural one in Mississippi.

With his blunt race-specific rhetoric about white people, Webb is staking out some interesting terrain. In a presidential campaign, it won't necessarily bear fruit in terms of votes or make much of a sturdy platform to win a race against another Democrat. But it's just the sort of identity politics that could push other candidates to rely less on dog whistles ("working class" as stand in for white, "inner city" as stand in for black and poor) when talking about race.

And just as easily trip them up, too.