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Is Jim Webb 2016's Barack Obama?

On issues of national security and economic justice, Webb could be the credible challenger to Hillary Clinton that some Democrats have been looking for.
Then Senate candidate Jim Webb, D-Va., addresses his supporters after watching election day results in Vienna, Va., Nov. 8, 2006. (Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)
Then Senate candidate Jim Webb, D-Va., addresses his supporters after watching election day results in Vienna, Va., Nov. 8, 2006.

Just when we thought the 2016 Democratic presidential primary would turn into a bloodless coronation of Hillary Clinton, the race gets a whole lot more interesting. Jim Webb, former Virginia Democratic senator and Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, just announced he’s forming a presidential exploratory committee. Webb writes:

“I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to ask you to consider the most important question facing America today: Is it possible that our next President could actually lay out a vision for the country, and create an environment where leaders from both parties and from all philosophies would feel compelled to work together for the good of the country, despite all of the money and political pressure that now demands they disagree?”

The letter doesn’t mention Hillary Clinton, but Webb’s background, rhetoric, and persona stands in stark contrast to the presumed Democratic frontrunner. On issues of national security and economic justice, Webb could be the credible challenger to Secretary Clinton that some Democrats have been looking for.

Related: Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley present first 2016 challenges for Clinton

While Clinton is hawkish and famously supported President George W. Bush’s Iraq War, Jim Webb has been a forceful and credible non-interventionist voice. While Clinton has attempted to shift her rhetoric to match the current mood of economic populism, Webb has a long track record of focusing on poverty, inequality, and economic justice. But perhaps more than anything, Webb’s very persona stands in direct opposition to that of Hillary Clinton.

In 2006, at a time when Hillary Clinton was serving in the Senate and considering whether or not to renounce her support for the Iraq War, Jim Webb was stumping for a Senate seat  in combat boots as an ode to his son who was serving in the military there. Before Webb’s opponent, George Allen, made “macaca” a household word, Webb was making a name for himself in Virginia politics based on his combination of decorated military service and opposition to the Iraq War.

Webb’s consistent and principled opposition led to a memorably uncomfortable exchange with then-President George W. Bush shortly after Webb’s election. At a White House reception for incoming Senate freshmen, Bush tracked Webb down and asked him: “How’s your boy?” To which Webb replied: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.” Bush tried again: "That's not what I asked you. How's your boy?" "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said ending the conversation.

Webb has since stuck to his guns as a non-interventionist, opposing U.S. involvement in Libya and Syria. If Americans are afraid of being drawn back into Iraq or being goaded by ISIS into another full-scale military conflict, Webb’s anti-war stance -- combined with his deep knowledge and credibility as a military veteran -- could be a potent challenge to Clinton’s hawkishness.

Economic populism could provide another area of potential vulnerability for Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state has attempted to match her rhetoric to the Democratic mood of the day by highlighting inequality and advocating for a minimum wage increase. But it hasn’t stopped criticism of her continued coziness with Wall Street, including the generous compensation she has received for speeches to Goldman Sachs. Clinton has yet to stake out a position at odds with the corporate and Wall Street executives who are expected to fund her campaign.

Webb, on the other hand, has already taken positions that would set him against the economic elite. In a recent interview with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, Webb pointed out the absurdity of hedge fund managers paying lower tax rates than wage earners saying: “Fairness says if you’re a hedge-fund manager or making deals where you’re making hundreds of millions of dollars and you’re paying capital-gains tax on that, rather than ordinary income tax, something’s wrong, and people know something’s wrong.” Webb has also decried the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are beholden to Wall street financial interests.

Webb’s candidacy could also undercut the supposed promise of Hillary’s electability. Some have argued that Clinton, given her Arkansas ties and previous success appealing to white working class voters, would be able to expand the electoral map and compete in Southern states that were out of bounds for President Obama. Webb, who is of Scotch-Irish decent and whose ancestors hail from Appalachia, would likely have the same electoral appeal. His exploratory letter highlights his concern for both the inner cities where you “see the stagnation, poverty, crime, and lack of opportunity that still affects so many African Americans” and the “poorest counties in America – who happen to be more than 90 percent White, and who live in the reality that 'if you’re poor and White you’re out of sight.'"

"While Clinton seemingly can’t get enough of hobnobbing with economic elites and cultivating donors, Webb has clear antipathy for the entire political fundraising process."'

Most potently, Webb and Hillary Clinton could not be any more different stylistically. While Clinton seemingly can’t get enough of hobnobbing with economic elites and cultivating donors, Webb has clear antipathy for the entire political fundraising process. When he was in the Senate, his fundraising approach consisted primarily of an occasional letter, penned by Webb himself explaining his work and asking for donations. If you did see Webb at political fundraisers, you would likely find him off to the side, speaking only to those who approached him, rather than working the wealthiest and most powerful individuals as most other politicians would.

Senator Tim Kaine, who replaced Webb in the Senate, explained to The Washington Post: "He is not a backslapper. There are different models that succeed in politics. There's the hail-fellow-well-met model of backslapping. That's not his style." In all the ways that Hillary is careful, Webb is direct. In the ways that she’s polished, he’s rough. And in all the ways that Hillary eagerly embraces the political game, Webb distances himself from it. But his authenticity could also be a liability: Webb has no established donor network and no appetite for politics. 

Barack Obama showed how a potent combination of outsider status, anti-war credibility and deep grassroots enthusiasm could propel an insurgent candidate into a position to win the nomination against the formidable Clinton political war machine. Despite the lessons of 2008, the nascent Hillary Clinton campaign seems to have corrected little of its tone-deafness or overconfidence. At the same time, Clinton is unlikely to allow her organization to be out-executed the way she was by Obama, who capitalized on his campaign's organizational competence and managerial discipline to win the Democratic nomination.

Though Clinton's tone-deafness and hubris might still befuddle Hillaryland in 2016, you can be sure they would have their caucus states organized and not be asleep at the wheel. And a candidate as fundamentally cautious as Hillary Clinton is unlikely to have the aforementioned "macaca" moment that ignited Webb's unlikely 2006 Senate candidacy against George Allen. 2006 was also a spectacular year for Democrats, when national forces came to Webb’s aid and made up for his many organizational sins and fundraising disadvantages.

Webb has never proven he can run the type of campaign organization that could execute the complex, precinct-by-precinct war it would take to dislodge Hillary. Nor is he the type of charismatic figure that electrified the national stage the way Obama did during his 2004 Democratic convention debut. But as the 2016 field comes together, a combination of factors could conspire to unleash a type of grassroots firestorm for Webb: disdain for politics as usual, the unaddressed fury of blue collar white voters, a deep longing for authenticity, and a likely post-Obama backlash against transformational, rhetorically charismatic leaders. An Obama-to-Webb transition isn’t the most natural, but given their shared disdain for hawkish adventurism and anti-establishment credibility, Webb’s bid for the coalition of the ascendant is not unreasonable.

However, before getting the politically cynical millennials to knock down doors for him, Webb will also have to explain to the Democratic base his positions on gun control, immigration and women’s rights. A 1979 article he wrote titled “Women Can’t Fight” is tough to square with a Democratic party that champions women’s empowerment and equality.

Still, for those looking for an alternative to Hillary Clinton and hoping she’ll face a real challenge in the Democratic primary, Jim Webb’s candidacy will certainly be an interesting one to watch. In his letter announcing his exploratory committee, Webb writes: “I can assure you that we will be focusing not on petty politics or how to match a position with a poll, but on the future of our country and on solutions that will rebuild and unite us.” Lots of politicians could write those words. Webb is one of the very few who could write them and actually be believed.