Webb for VP

Over the last few weeks, there appears to have been something of a boomlet of support for naming Senator Jim Webb of Virginia the Democratic nominee for Vice-President. For what it’s worth, I think this is a potentially brilliant move, although I do have a few reservations.

There are nine reasons I can think of why Webb would make a strong VP.

a) He helps considerably with Obama’s credibility on military affairs. While Obama does have what seem like pretty decent instincts on foreign relations, in all honesty his understanding of the military as an institution is thin. He needs someone on the ticket who knows how the military works, how things get done, and how its internal politics operates. Webb was Secretary of the Navy, serves on both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, and has had a lifetime of experience thinking through the uses of military power. A Democrat like Obama is likely to end up sideways with the military, at least on occasion (although less than in past decades, given our recent experience), and he’ll need someone by his side who knows how the game is played with the Pentagon.

b) Connected to (a), Webb could very credibly campaign in areas with large military installations (especially Navy and Marine installations). Virginia, Florida, and California (the latter may be in play if McCain can maintain his now-fictive reputation as a moderate) have enough active-duty military personnel that improving the Democrats’ performance with military voters in these states could be the difference between victory and defeat. Military support for Republicans is very strong, especially with a veteran on the Republican ticket, but Democrats only need to improve their performance marginally to make a big difference here.

c) Obama has shown some considerable weakness among white voters in and around Appalachia (defined broadly), although it’s not clear yet how much this will extend to the general election. Webb’s claim to fame, along with his work on military issues, is his ostentatious embrace of his Scots-Irish heritage—what my friends in sociology might call “paleo-whiteness.” If Obama put Webb on his ticket, he could campaign actively among active-duty military personnel (see b), and spend most of his time on a bus driving up and down from Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, south through Virginia and West Virginia, and in a stab at Republican home territory, in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky. I think the odds of the Democrats winning in those latter three states are slim, but if Webb could make them competitive by driving up the Democrats’ performance in parts of those states where they generally do not run well, it could force the Republicans to expend time and resources where they’d rather not.

d) Webb is the leading supporter of the recently passed New GI Bill, which–whatever its policy merits—is a great political issue for Democrats, and one where McCain has staked out a position that he shows no interest in budging from (and which he shares with Bush). This is a great issue because it allows the Democrats to attack McCain on what should be his greatest strength, and to tie him to the president. On its own, it won’t dislodge a whole lot of veterans (or currently serving personnel), but it may make them more open to listening. Having Webb on the ticket raises the profile of the issue and ensures that it will be a major part of the Fall campaign.

e) Webb openly defines himself as a “Reagan Democrat,” and he has a great claim to the title (having actually served as a Reagan appointee). If Obama is going to genuinely open up the electoral map, he needs to be able to speak directly to Republicans who have grown disgusted with their own party. To get them to switch to the Democrats, he needs a spokesman who has the credibility that can only come from having done it himself. I can imagine Webb giving a great speech to the Democratic convention, aimed directly at voters who regularly pull the lever for Republicans, saying, “Here’s why I became a Democrat, why I chose to serve on Obama’s ticket, and why I think you should join me in switching your party allegiance.” Sort of like a sane version of Zell Miller. No one else currently in the running for Obama’s VP can do that.

f) Obama needs cover. There is no question that either McCain or his (official or informally coordinated) surrogates will attack Obama for being culturally alien and itching to sacrifice our national interests in order to play patty-cake with dictators. He needs someone who oozes cultural orthodoxy and hawkishness to protect this—very vulnerable—flank. I can’t think of anyone who can defend Obama as effectively as Webb can.

g) Obama needs someone to attack McCain, on precisely the issues that McCain wants to run on. Whether we like it or not, one key role of the vice-presidential candidate is to spend time ripping the bark off the guy at the top of the opposing ticket. Webb is strong—and arguably more sophisticated—on the dimensions that McCain will be trying to run on: national security and “outsiderness.” There are some candidates who would be good at attacking one prong of McCain’s strategy, but not the other. Webb is good on both.

h) In office, Obama needs someone to keep him from doing anything stupid. I once thought Obama’s political radar to be exceptionally well-tuned. Like a lot of other people, I’m now convinced that it doesn’t pick up on some potential threats as well as it does others. Webb, on the other hand, is very finely attuned to things that will be seen as offensive to white working-class voters—he has the view from the inside, not an outsider view driven by polling those one does not instinctively understand. Just as important, Webb is a blunt, no-nonsense guy, whose whole history suggests that he will be willing to tell Obama things that others won’t. I think there is a danger that he will share his dissents with others as well, and that this might cause problems for a President Obama. But, on balance, I think this is less of a risk than that he won’t hear things that make him uncomfortable.

i) In office, Webb will be a good spokesman for some of Obama’s less popular policy initiatives. At the top of the list here, I put America’s drug war and our habit of excessive incarceration. I would consider an Obama presidency a failure if he did not make significant progress on this issue—it is a matter of exceptional national importance. But he needs someone pushing it who can speak directly to the fears that Americans will have, that cutting back on incarceration will mean greater dangers for themselves and their families. I don’t think Obama is the perfect messenger for this point, but Webb is (and has shown a very strong interest in the issue).

I will talk about my reservations more in a later post. But, in brief, I think there are three.

First, Webb’s economic views, while very admirable on some dimensions—such as his acute concern for the declining standard of living of many working-class Americans—lean toward some of the more counter-productive elements of populism, like trade protection and excessive regulation, especially of financial markets. Second, I think there is a small but non-negligible chance that Webb’s conversion to the Democratic party could be less than complete, and that we will only find out about this only in the heat of governing (viewers of the West Wing will have some idea what I’m talking about here). Third, there continue to be worries about Webb’s temperament, although I have been told by people who have reason to know that these are mainly squid ink sent up by his opponents (and to whatever degree they were true when he was a younger man are not true anymore).

These are real worries, and are not to be lightly ignored. But the political case for Webb is so compelling, that I think they are risks worth taking. Webb would be a gamble, but unlike putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket—which would suggest that the party was primarily concerned with simply healing its own internal rifts—his place on the ticket would signal genuine ambition and daring, and could be a potentially game-changing move.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.