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Jerome Karabel Headshot

Jim Webb for Vice President: A Brilliant Idea?

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Though the media is now full of chatter about whether Barack Obama will select Hillary Clinton as his running mate, the betting markets say that Jim Webb is about as likely a choice for Vice President. There has been heated discussion about whether Webb would be a wise or disastrous pick, with most pundits coming down firmly on one side or the other. Now, with Obama's Vice Presidential Search Committee already at work, the time has come for a sober assessment of Webb, balancing his strengths against his weaknesses.

Webb's assets as Obama's potential running mate are considerable:

1. In a party often perceived as soft on defense, Webb is a genuine war hero with considerable experience in managing the military. For his service as a Marine in Vietnam, he was awarded the Navy Cross (the second highest decoration in the Navy and the Marine Corps) for "extraordinary heroism" as well as a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Quite simply, this is not a record that can be "swift-boated." And Webb has extensive service on the civilian side of military affairs, having served as first Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rescue Affairs and then Secretary of the Navy under the Reagan administration. In 1988, Webb resigned as Secretary of the Navy on a matter of principle; at a time when the Pentagon was under pressure to reduce the budget, he refused to cut the size of the Navy.

2. Webb was an early and prescient opponent of the Iraq War. In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post in September 2002, he argued that there was no "absolutely vital national interest" that would justify a "unilateral war" and asked bluntly whether such a war would "actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism." Webb delivered the Democratic response to Bush's State of the Union address in 2007, offering an eloquent and moving critique of Bush's conduct of the war.

3. Webb has been a powerful critic of the growing class divide in America. In a stunning piece entitled "Class Struggle" published in (of all places) the Wall Street Journal, he denounced "our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century." Noting that "the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made" when he graduated from college in the 1960s but now makes "400 times as much," he denounced the "sense of entitlement ... bordering on hubris" that "has set in among elites." This theme of economic fairness also figured prominently in his response to Bush's State of the Union address.

4. In his very being and in his family history, Webb embodies a set of characteristics that would provide a powerful counter-balance to one of Obama's principal weaknesses -- his relative lack of support in the white working class. A Protestant of Scotch-Irish descent with deep family roots in southwest Virginia, he has an easy familiarity with working-class culture that Obama lacks. As Webb himself has written, "It's pretty safe to say that I am the only person in the history of Virginia to be elected to statewide office with a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos." Of special relevance to Obama's campaign is Webb's commitment to building a working-class alliance across racial lines; he has written more than once that the Scotch-Irish working class and blacks share many of the same interests and that they could, if they worked together, constitute an electoral majority.

5. A person of evident courage and integrity who has been a conventional politician for just two years, Webb meshes perfectly with Obama's core of themes of change and a different -- and less partisan -- kind of politics. In this regard, some of the very attributes that distinguish him from other potential Vice Presidential candidates and lead him to be viewed with suspicion by many Democrats -- his service in the Reagan Administration, his extensive record of military service, and his affinity with the culture of white working-class America -- may be viewed as powerful assets. So, too, is his exceptional talent as a writer -- a quality guaranteed to make him an articulate and passionate defender of the themes that Obama chooses to highlight in his campaign against John McCain.

But Webb's liabilities as a Democratic candidate for Vice President are far from negligible:

1. Webb has spent much more of his adult life as a Republican than as a Democrat. His identity as a Republican was far from accidental; he abhorred the protest movement against the Vietnam War, he was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan, and he detested Bill Clinton. These are not the views that one would normally expect of a Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, and it is hardly surprising that many Democrats object to someone who rejects key elements of their basic narrative of the past 40 years of American history.

2. Webb's record on race is one that will arouse unease among African-Americans, who are the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition and may comprise 20 percent or more of Democratic voters in the 2008 election. The descendent of several men who served in the Confederacy, Webb has at times expressed views that seem to endorse a Gone With the Wind view of Southern history. In a speech in 1990 at the Confederate War Memorial, he wrote lyrically of an "army that rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a yet unconquered wilderness" and referred to "the bitter humiliation of Reconstruction" that Southerners endured. More recently, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, he attacked affirmative action as "a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crows laws it sought to countermand."

3. Webb's record on gender includes some statements at least as inflammatory as his remarks on race. In a notorious 1979 article in The Washingtonian (for which he has since apologized), he came out in fierce opposition to a role for women in combat and memorably referred to the Naval Academy's Bancroft Hall, which houses 4000 males and 300 females, as "a horny woman's dream." Years later, he described the investigations of the notorious 1991 Tailhook incident at a convention of naval aviators as a "witch hunt." Webb's views have evolved since this time, but it is hard to view him as a stout defender of women's rights -- one of the core principles for which the Democratic Party is supposed to stand. Especially in a year when gaining the support of working-class and older women who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries is crucial for Democratic prospects in November, selecting Webb could well be seen as a gratuitous "slap in the face" to female voters.

4. Precisely because he is a gifted and prolific writer (he is the author of six widely acclaimed novels, two serious works of non-fiction, and numerous newspaper articles), Webb has left a long paper trail that could easily take the Obama campaign off track. There are many examples, but one in particular caught my eye; Webb endorsed a highly questionable revisionist history of the Vietnam War that in essence argues in favor of the view still found frequently in right-wing circles that the Vietnam War could have been won had it not been for the efforts of treacherous elites inside and outside of government. In his book, Born Fighting, he writes that "creationists rationally argue that... the theory of evolution as presented by the Darwinists still rests on scientific speculation that has yet to be proven". Part of Webb's appeal is his penchant for idiosyncratic and frequently iconoclastic views; whether Obama wishes to deal with his long record of highly controversial statements is a question that he will have to ponder.

5. Finally, there is the question of whether Webb has the right temperament to be Vice President. I am not referring here to his somewhat unusual relationship to guns; in 2007, one of Webb's aides was arrested for inadvertently carrying Webb's loaded pistol as he entered the Senate Office Building. Webb was given his first gun by his father at age eight (as he did with his own son), and he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and rights of gun-owners; he has stated that having a permit to carry a weapon is "important to me personally and to a lot of people in the situation that I'm in to be able to defend myself and my family." Nor am I referring to the personal rigidity that kept him from shaking hands with John Kerry for twenty years because, in Webb's view, Kerry's activity as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War had dishonored the men who served there. But I am referring to Webb's apparently deep-seated inability to accept limits on his autonomy. After resigning as Secretary of the Navy, Webb said "It's no secret that I'm not a person who wears a bridle well." Yet the capacity to wear a bridle (and to so gracefully) is a sine qua non of the job of Vice President. This may be a case of an egregious mismatch between an undeniably talented man and a job that requires acceptance of subordination.

Much of the discussion, both pro and con, about Webb as a prospect for Vice President has focused on his capacity to help Obama win the White House. But this discussion seems largely misplaced because there is surprisingly little evidence that the choice of Vice President in fact plays a significant role in determining who wins the White House.

The far more important issue is whether Webb -- or any candidate for Vice President -- would make a good president. Of the 46 men who have served as Vice President,
14 -- fully 30 percent -- have gone on to become President. Nine of them succeeded directly to the presidency - four by assassination(Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson), four as a consequence of the president dying while in office (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman); and one as a consequence of resignation (Gerald Ford). Four others were elected directly to the presidency (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, George Herbert Walker Bush), and one other (Nixon) was elected after an eight-year interval. Looked at it from a different angle, 9 of the 43 Presidents -- over 20 percent -- did not complete their term in office, thereby elevating their Vice President to the White House.

So Obama's choice of Vice President could not be weightier. When I started research for this piece, I was convinced that choosing Webb would be a bad idea; now, having read more of his writings and having developed a better sense of who he is and what his beliefs are, my position has softened. For Webb is, by any standard, an extraordinarily accomplished man -- a gifted writer, a genuine war hero, a serious political and military thinker, and a person of exceptional character, courage, and integrity.

Yet I still have grave doubts about whether Webb, who joined the Democratic Party so recently, should be its second most visible representative. And I will confess that I remain uncomfortable with the thought that a man of his views and temperament could be a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. However, the prospect of a genuine maverick like Jim Webb -- with his skepticism about the deployment of military force and deep commitment to economic fairness- - in the Senate for years to come is one that I find appealing; I also believe that he might make an outstanding Secretary of Defense. But in the end, the thought of Webb as Vice President remains a profoundly unsettling one, and I suspect that Barack Obama - after reflecting on Webb's many virtues -- will reach a similar conclusion.