And for much of the two-plus-hour debate, viewers paying close attention would have also been quite justified in asking a few questions out loud. Who is this man? Is he actually a Democrat? And, what year does he think that this is?
Now, Webb has announced another befuddling move. He's dropping out of the Democratic race for the White House. He hasn't ruled out an independent bid that's even more of a long-shot than his Democratic bid (if that's even possible).
One has to wonder: Is Webb aware that even Teddy Roosevelt tried this and failed? Probably not. The Webb campaign really was over long before this moment. And the fundamental reason is Webb's almost singular focus on white, working class voters.
Webb, a one-term senator, decorated combat veteran, Reagan Administration secretary of the navy and defense aide who took himself out of the running for the vice presidential slot on the Obama ticket back in 2008, is the kind of candidate that on paper seems formidable. He's got impeccable credentials -- or at least ones that have typically gone over well with American voters. He is a son of the South and a career military man. He has a law degree from Georgetown. He's written several best-selling books, helped to craft a Hollywood feature film and documentaries. He's a former Republican.
But the man is also serious -- very serious. Just look at his frown, his military service record, and his tenure, however, brief, in the Senate. In 2009, Webb began pushing for criminal justice reform long before it had become a matter of widespread bipartisan agreement and the nation's falling crime rate was well-known. He secured updates to the GI Bill that carried the promise of delivering economic mobility and educational opportunity to the the country's newly minted and diverse pool of Middle East combat veterans, something the original GI Bill did best and most reliably for only white veterans.
Still, in the three or so months since Webb formally declared his interest in the White House, Webb's poll numbers have remained so infinitesimal that The New York Times described him as a "blip in the polls."
Webb, it seemed, has been most determined and dogged in his efforts to speak for and to lower-income and working-class white people . There are about 19 million white Americans living in poverty and at least another several million more white Americans -- often defined rather loosely as white workers who do not have a college degree -- rank among the so-called "working class." One 2013 American Enterprise Institute report estimates that the white working class make up as much as 40 percent of the American electorate.
And, they make up a slightly bigger portion of the nation's total poor. Here's the most recent detailed data available.
That's not a small group. And to be clear, their political and personal interests matter quite a bit. Slate's Jamelle Bouie and Newsweek's Matthew Cooper have each made quite a convincing case for that. But the sliver of the white poor and working class who are at this point loyal Democrats is relatively small. Really, really small. This is a sliver of the current Democratic base.
So, short of some kind of major shakeup, or a high-energy and hard-fought but brilliant campaign that somehow convinces the vast majority of lower-income whites and the white working class to shift their loyalty to the Democratic Party -- or at least the Webb campaign -- there was simply never any real way for Webb to win by appealing to these voters alone.
In some ways, Webb's campaign is an object lesson in the cold realities of demographic change. At this point, no Democrat can prevail in the primary without securing healthy African-American and Latino support. And certainly, no Democrat has any chance at all of winning in the general election without claiming every black, Latino and Asian vote that they can. That, along with young college-educated white Americans and some white women is the basically the Obama coalition.
That two of these three populations -- Latinos and Asians -- rank among the fastest-growing segments of both the population and the electorate means we have reached the point where, for Democrats, there is no version of electoral math that ends with a win if it does not include a lot of non-white voters. And for Republicans, that moment is fast approaching too.
But if you pay only passing attention to the national headlines and political news, you have heard all of that before.
What was really wrong with Webb's campaign was that Webb was speaking to white working class voters about their by-now-well-documented sense of aggrievement and mistreatment -- the notion that their lives are hard and government has no interest at all in doing anything for anyone who is not a racial or ethnic minority.
As a strategic matter, that was never likely to work. They can get some version of this -- usually expressed as "free stuff" -- from Republican candidates and their party. And Republicans have been doing this work so well for so long that they have a pretty solid lock on these voters.
What Webb would have had to do and probably should have done was speak to the struggles of these voters as a function of decades of international trade deals with bipartisan support, the movement of once decent-paying American jobs overseas, the decline in union membership and the growing gap between those who have the resources to send their kids to good k-12 schools and college and those who do not. To be fair, Webb has said a fair bit about the gap between CEO and average worker compensation. But the rest of that list? Not much.
Again, to be very clear here, the white working class and poor are struggling -- at least economically -- along with a whole lot of other Americans. The reasons are complex and long but certainly do not begin and end with the utterly phantasmagorical notion that black, Latino, Native America and Asian Americans are collectively living the good life at direct cost to whites.
Here is the reality check that some of these voters need: There are clear, long-term patterns to American poverty. It is true that poverty and many of the ills that come with it are disproportionately and horribly high among blacks and Latinos. But when it comes to the collective public cost, the hard dollars and sense of trying to mitigate poverty, to create some kind of floor beneath which no American should fall, white Americans remain the majority of those benefiting directly from just about every social service and aid program that you can imagine.
And, this is true even though black and Latino disadvantage is more heavily concentrated, meaning larger shares of these populations are poor and may need social supports. But none of that equals people of color are reaping "free stuff" that white Americans can't access. Take a close look at the chart below. It includes just one aid program, cash welfare assistance. It's generally limited to deeply disadvantaged people for a period of five years or less.
Webb has said publicly that Affirmative Action programs should be limited to African Americans, because of their unique history and experiences in the United States. But he has said almost nothing about the rest. On Tuesday, as Webb made his big announcement, he even compared himself to an earlier version of once-powerful Democrat: Sam Nunn, Scoop Jackson and John F. Kennedy.
The platform on which Webb was trying to run wasn't catching on because voters seeking those answers could already get them from another party that has perfected this craft. Webb's opening might have been -- dare we say it -- in being the politician who tells the white working class and poor the truth.
But the campaign Webb ran would have struggled to work in 1960, when Kennedy was after the Democratic Party's nomination, and certainly could not work today.