The New Calculus for Conservative Democrats

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Sen. James Webb, above, is being uncharacteristically coy about his plans for the 2012 election. Khue Bui for Newsweek

On Veterans Day a crowd of 300 or so Virginians gathered in a tent on the grounds of the estate of Gen. George C. Marshall. They were there to commemorate what they still regard as their unappreciated service in Vietnam, a war gone bad through no fault of their own. Many arrived dressed in the dark business suits of late-middle-age prosperity. A few wore faded combat fatigues. One man sported a leather flight jacket with a TONKIN GULF YACHT CLUB decal on the right sleeve. VFW and American Legion caps covered bald heads and crowned gray ponytails.

A high-school color guard ushered in a platform's worth of dignitaries, including the featured speaker, Virginia Sen. James Webb. The vets stood at attention and sang along with a local band that played the various service anthems. Webb joined in when the band struck up the Marine Corps hymn. The senator is 64, the same age as most of his comrades in arms, but he has the posture of a midshipman, a shock of red hair, and the face of a pugnacious baby that give him the youthful look of a man still looking forward.

The specific direction Webb regards as forward is a matter of considerable speculation. His Senate term ends in two years, and, in the general uncertainty engendered by the midterm elections, he has taken to telling inquisitive reporters that he hasn't yet decided if he will run for reelection. "I'm not saying I'm not going to," he says. It is an atypically coy evasion for a man with a reputation for blunt speaking.

What Webb does in two years will certainly affect Virginia politics. How he positions himself in the meantime may have broader significance as well: Webb could serve as a model for 10 other Democratic senators who face reelection battles in states like Virginia, where unstinting support of the Obama agenda could be a recipe for early retirement.

Republicans also are gaming how conservative Democrats like Webb will figure into the new calculus. "The big buzz in D.C. is whether Obama tacks to the left to appease his base or moves toward the center to appeal to moderates," says Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. "The reality is he doesn't have a choice. Not if he wants to actually get anything done in the next two years. There is a bloc of 11 [Democratic] senators who will be up for reelection from conservative states, and they are likely to establish a formidable group that will block any progressive legislation that is high on the liberal agenda."

Webb's Veterans Day remarks were brief and unadorned by the grandiosity displayed by the average political orator on patriotic occasions. Then again, Webb is not an average politician. He grew up as a peripatetic Air Force brat, aced Annapolis, and led a rifle platoon, and later a company, in Vietnam. In a year of combat, he was wounded twice, received a silver star, two bronze stars and the Navy Cross, a decoration second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. There were brave men in the tent on Veterans Day that morning, but none—not even the rear admiral who preceded Webb on the dais—had a better war record. It gave him the authority to end his talk with a plea to the audience to remember that some of the Vietnamese refugees in Virginia also fought on the American side and deserve acknowledgment (Webb is married to a Vietnamese woman and speaks the language). "I've never heard a politician say something like that," an American-born Vietnamese journalist covering the event told me.

After the final benediction, Webb spent some time shaking hands. He is a notoriously bad campaigner, impatient and reticent, but here he was in his element. I found myself standing next to a thin man named Steve who had an I SERVED: VIETNAM badge pinned to his V-neck sweater. Together we watched the senator work the tent. "What do you think of him?" I asked.

"Jim Webb is something else," he replied.

"You think he's going to run again?"

"Don't know," Steve said and paused for a moment. "Here's the thing. I love Webb, but I vote Republican. And I think most of the guys here do, too."

If Webb weren't a Democratic senator, he might vote Republican himself. He served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and quit because he was to the right of the Gipper on military spending. In 2000 he endorsed Republican George Allen's Senate bid in Virginia. Six years later, running as a self-styled Reagan Democrat, he shocked the political world by narrowly beating Allen for the seat. Political observers in Virginia believe that there will probably be a rematch.

It is a race Webb could lose. His victory over Allen in 2006, followed by the large majority won by Barack Obama in Virginia in 2008, led many Democrats to believe that the state was finally trending blue. This proved to be wishful thinking. In 2009 conservative Republican candidate Bob McDonnell took the governorship in a landslide, and this year Republicans knocked out three Democratic incumbent congressmen and now control eight of the state's 11 House seats. Still, a recent poll by Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling shows Webb leading Allen, his most likely opponent, by 49–45 percent. The fact that Webb has a fighting chance, much less an outright lead, is a tribute both to his personal popularity and the right-center positions he has staked out on behalf of what he refers to as Jacksonian democracy. It is also what makes him a potential role model for other endangered Democrats up for reelection in 2012.

It is a political truism that a lot of things can happen in two years. The national mood could shift in the progressive direction. President Obama might pull a Clinton and move to meet the electorate halfway. Republicans could overreach. But none of these things will necessarily happen. Politicians, like generals, tend to view the next campaign through the lens of the last one. By that standard, senators from deep-blue states—like Ben Cardin of Maryland, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, or Daniel Akaka of Hawaii—can look toward 2012 and relax, confident that sticking up for the president's agenda, no matter how liberal it is, will not hurt their chances. But for Webb and his endangered colleagues from deeply conservative areas of the country, or swing states where the Democrats got clobbered this year, following the leader in the White House doesn't feel like an effective electoral strategy. "I've been saying this for five years," Webb told me. "Democrats have to reach out to the working class. Something has to change in the Democratic Senate."

After the ceremony I followed Senator Webb into the Marshall mansion, up two flights of stairs to a small meeting room. On the way I noticed that he limps, the result of throwing himself between one of his men and an enemy grenade. This was our first meeting, but I had heard about Webb from Washington journalists. Several warned me with variations of "He doesn't suffer fools lightly," an admonition I tried not to take personally. His fearsome reputation was enhanced in 2007 when one of his senior aides was busted carrying Webb's loaded handgun into a Senate office building. Webb, it emerged, has a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Virginia. It concentrates your mind to sit down with a U.S. senator who you assume is packing.

I asked Webb about his well-known encounter with President Bush at a White House reception in December 2006. Webb's son was serving as a Marine infantryman in Iraq at the time, and opposition to the war was at its peak. "How's your boy?" the president asked the senator-elect, to which Webb replied, "That's between me and my boy." It made Webb an instant hero of the liberal left, but Webb now regrets his churlish response to the commander in chief. "George Bush can be blustery, and the question hit me the wrong way," he said. "Let's just say that both of us were having a bad day." Progressives who mistook Webb for a potential leader of the antiwar movement soon realized their mistake. Webb is very far from a peacenik. His basic objection to Iraq (and Afghanistan) is that they have resulted in occupations, which he considers a misuse of military power and the troops. His single great achievement in the Senate was forming a bipartisan coalition with Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Republicans Chuck Hagel and John Warner that pushed through a law granting today's returning soldiers the same sort of benefits offered in the post–World War II GI Bill.

Fortunately, Webb was in a cordial mood during our interview. He is the author of a number of successful war novels, but his most important book is Born Fighting, the story of the Scots-Irish in America, which he was eager to discuss. Webb admires Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century president who opened the political door to the impoverished Scots-Irish of the South. He considers these folks—his folks—to be the backbone of the country, unfairly stereotyped by cultural snobs and discriminated against by supercilious government social engineers.

Webb also firmly believes that the base of the Democratic Party—African-Americans, Hispanics, college students, and urban elites—is missing a crucial piece, the white working class, and he has not been shy about saying so. In July he published an article in The Wall Street Journal titled "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege," in which he argued against affirmative-action programs for all but African-American descendants of slaves. "Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard--working white Americans…" Predictably, Webb's article infuriated many liberals, including the head of the Virginia branch of the NAACP, who attacked the author for denying the existence of white privilege. But in our interview, Webb insisted that he is arguing only for simple equity. "When I met the president at a birthday lunch?at the White House in August, we discussed this. I told him, 'Mr. President, people need to know you are fair.'?"

Affirmative action is only one of the Democratic orthodoxies Webb would like to dispense with. He opposes cap-and-trade and wrote a letter to the president on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit warning him that he lacked the constitutional authority to bind the United States to an agreement; he thinks the detainees in Guantánamo ought to stay put and be given military trials; he doesn't necessarily support the abolition of "don't ask, don't tell," preferring to wait for the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs; he wants a narrow path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here and $3 billion in emergency funds to build a serious border fence; and he is not enthusiastic about "Obamacare." "I voted with the Republicans 17 times against provisions of the bill before I voted for it," he said, unconsciously echoing John Kerry's famous line in the 2004 campaign.

Webb not only advocates moving away from the more liberal aspects of the Obama legislative agenda, he thinks the party needs a change in attitude. In Born Fighting he scorned "the upper crust of academia and the pampered salons of Hollywood"—among the Democrats' most important sources of money and policy advice—as an elite unable to comprehend, much less appeal to, working-class whites. He warns against the influence of these "cultural Marxists" and people on "the Activist Left" who want to create a "collectivist" America.

These are fighting words—Tea Party talk. The problem for endangered Senate Democrats is that it resonates loudly in the states they hope to carry in two years. Webb thinks these candidates would be wise to readjust their outlook, their voting, and their rhetoric. "I'm optimistic that people will see the logic of these positions and realize that it is in their self-interest to adopt them," he said.

I asked Webb who among his fellow senators he considers potential Jacksonians. "People can describe themselves," he said. But when I read him a list of endangered Democrats and asked if he saw them as potential allies in moving the Senate to the center, he nodded at nearly every name. If he is right, Majority Leader Harry Reid could find himself going into the 112th Congress up against not merely an energized Republican opposition, but a band of rebel Democrats led by the new Old Hickory.

Endangered List

The Democrats kept control of the Senate in the midterms. But James Webb and these other Dems, who face reelection in 2012, will likely need to emphasize (or find) their conservative side in upcoming campaigns if the current mood prevails.

Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska

A conservative pro-lifer in a state that voted heavily against Obama.

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida

A center-left figure in a state with increasingly center-right views.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota

Will his role on the Senate Budget Committee clash with a cost-cutting mood?

Sen. John Tester, Montana

He narrowly won in 2006, in a state that voted for McCain two years later.

Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia

He often sounded like a Tea Partier when he won a vacant seat this year.

Sen. Sherrod brown, Ohio

Ohio elected a GOP governor and senator this year. Can this liberal survive?

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania went for Obama in '08. This year the state veered right.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan

She barely won in 2006; one recent poll showed a 38 percent approval rating.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri

The Republicans scored big midterm wins in the Show Me State.

Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin

You can't assume Wisconsin voters are as progressive as they used to be.

The New Calculus for Conservative Democrats | U.S.