Democrats on Capitol Hill hang on his every word, and Jim Webb doesn’t disappoint. His son was extended in Iraq for the surge, and his resolve to end a war that he opposed from the start is undisputed. He came from 33 points behind to win election in Virginia and tip control of the Senate to the Democrats—largely on the strength of his antiwar, tough-guy military credentials. Democrats owe him, and they trust him to help them find an honorable path out of Iraq.
But Webb doesn't favor a timeline for withdrawal, as the Nancy Pelosi bill passed by the House on Friday proposes, or capping the number of troops in Iraq, as Hillary Clinton suggests. Webb wants a diplomatic solution, and he's working with Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a fellow Vietnam veteran and a friend for 30 years, to come up with a bipartisan bill that would incorporate some of what he calls "the more workable points" from the House bill without unnecessarily tying the hands of the military. He wouldn't say much about it—other than it's a work in progress as the Democrats try to ratchet up pressure on President Bush to wind down the war.
The House bill calls for U.S. combat troops to come home by September of next year, or earlier if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks. Bush called the vote an act of political theater and said the troops are in danger of running out of money if Congress does not act soon. He did not sound like a man ready to compromise as he stood before a row of Iraq war supporters and angrily denounced Congress. Given how polarized the debate has become, the need for a third way—which Webb embodies—is more urgent than ever.
Webb slipped in just minutes before he was scheduled to speak Thursday to the National Press Club. He explained he was coming from his first round of what they call the "Vote-O-Rama," a series of budget votes in the Senate, and he seemed genuinely buoyed by his new life as a politician. Even the most ardent admirers of the former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan and acclaimed war novelist weren't quite sure how he would tolerate the bureaucratic pace of politics and adjust his solitary lifestyle as a writer to the clubbiness of the Senate. They needn't have worried. Webb is already a leading voice not only on Iraq but also on the economic fairness issues that Democrats hope will win them the White House in '08. He was the first statewide candidate in Red State Virginia to walk a picket line during a campaign, and the growing disparity between the rich and everybody else is a recurrent theme of his.
An experienced Democratic pollster told NEWSWEEK that he thought even before Webb won that he'd make a good vice presidential candidate should Hillary get the nomination. He brings Red State popularity, military ballast—and something else less quantifiable but just as important. "You know what I thought the right quality was?" the pollster continues. "What other person can you look at and say he won't take orders from Bill?" That kind of independence may or may not endear him to Hillary, but it serves him well as he forges ahead on Iraq and tries to reconnect the Democratic Party to its working-class roots. John Edwards talks about Two Americas; Webb says there are Three Americas—the wealthy 1 percent that owns 53 percent of the stocks; an underclass "calcified at the bottom," and a large group in the middle getting less than their fair share.
Some thought Webb would be a closet Republican on everything but the war. But a week after the November election, he wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal decrying the "steady drift toward a class-based system" where few among the elites send their children to public schools and "fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars." He had written for the Journal's conservative editorial page for years about foreign policy and military matters, and they wanted first dibs on what he had to say after winning his Senate seat. They didn't expect an article about "incestuous corporate boards" approving compensation packages for CEOs of more than $10 million a year while minimum-wage workers make $10,000 a year. "Trickle-down economics didn't happen," Webb wrote.
Asked if he plans to write a book about Capitol Hill, Webb got very serious. "I've got eight years in government," he said, four years as a congressional aide and four years at the Pentagon. "One of the things I'm proudest of is you'll never see anything in writing" about the private conversations he had with Reagan's secretary of Defense, Cap Weinberger, or the ranking Republican congressman who was his boss. But he is writing a book about where he thinks the country needs to go economically and on what he calls "trajectory issues"—subjects nobody wants to talk about, like the 2 million Americans currently in prison. A black male who does not finish high school now has a 60 percent chance of going to jail, he says. One who has finished high school has a 30 percent chance.
Webb's model is the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a famously quirky thinker who turned out close to a book a year while he was in the Senate, publishing at least 18 books in all. "I don't think I'll keep that pace, but I will always write. It's part of who I am," Webb said. The economic and social justice themes Webb sounds could serve as a handbook for any Democrat running for office, which may be just the point.