A Q&A With Jim Webb

Washington Monthly: Almost a year after your election, do you feel that the ideas about economic fairness you raised on the campaign trail continue to resonate?

Jim Webb: When I ran in 2006, the war and George Allenhis own little journeyoverwhelmed the news. But in every single speech, I talked about economic fairness and executive compensation. I think these economic issues are sticking. Have you looked at the results of this year’s Virginia state elections? Democrats ran on competence, as the people who know how to lead and solve economic problems. We picked up four seats, in solidly Republican districts.

WM: It feels like we’re on an economic ledge, with a lot of problems in the housing market, growing income disparities, the impact of globalization and outsourcing. Is there anything you can do in Washington?

JW: There are certain things. First, raise the public consciousness about what is going on. Before the last election, the populist caucus in the Senate consisted of Byron Dorgan [laughs]. Now, probably six of the nine Democrats elected in 2006 feel strongly about issues of economic fairness.

One way to get things done is to look closely at tax policies. For instance, current policies that allow hedge-fund managers to designate their incomes as “capital gains,” and get a reduced tax rate. Another way is to look at trade pacts. In none of the early trade pacts did we have provisions taking care of the American worker. Now we’re putting them in.

There are a lot of votes I’ve taken where 30 percent of what I’ve voted for I didn’t like. But 70 percent I had some agreement with. That’s the most frustrating part, in terms of bringing a writer’s sort of intellectual discipline to the table.

JW: When you write, you deal in complexities. You can render the complexities. In a job like this, where you vote, the vote is an absolute. Even if you believe in something 50.1 percent of the way, you have to vote one way or the other.

My intellectual growth really was as a writer, taking enormously complex issues and thinking about them, parsing them, and laying them outsometimes in the human drama of a novel, and sometimes in straight-up essays.

I’m still trying to do that when I’m preparing to vote. I talk about the complexities on the Senate floor. Before complicated votes, I’ll bring my staff in and let them debate; people have different points of view. I’ll argue with them, think it through, and then I go vote. You have to come to some sort of conclusion.

JW: I think the frustration with long lead times that many new senators feel is not so foreign to me, because I know how long it takes to write a book [laughs]. You can’t get something done in a week in Washington, but that part doesn’t really bother me.

The biggest frustration for me is in terms of personal freedom. When I’m a writer, I control my own schedule. Usually I write well into the afternoon, then I go work out and eat lunch around 3 o’clock. And if I have reason to pick up and go to Bangkok, I go to Bangkok.

But in Washington, you’re totally a prisoner. Particularly as a senator or a congressman, compared to the staff. I can’t even meet someone for lunch at Thai Shirlington [in the Virginia suburbs], because I don’t know when the Senate will call a vote. Being chained to the place took some getting used to.

We go full blast up here. I can see how people would be frustrated, but I don’t see how anybody could be bored. There are just too many things to do if you want to do them.

JW: I have four or five what I call trajectory issues, issues that aren’t going to be resolved in one year. I have people working full-time on those issuestrade, criminal justice, worker rights, the fairness of the tax code. These issues won’t be solved by just one bill. We’re gonna be working on them full-time.

WM: You’ve talked about how Republicans have prevented economic issues from becoming a unifier across racial lines by playing poor blacks against poor whites. You’ve also talked about unfairness in the prison system. Is there an opportunity for Democrats there?

JW: Twenty-five years ago, I was the first American journalist in modern history to be allowed inside the Japanese jail system. I spent a month with the ministry of justice, visiting jails. I wrote a piece for Parade magazine, which back then used to do some pretty responsible journalism.

I read all of the volumes and statistics from America’s Bureau of Criminal Justice, and from Japan’s equivalent. At that time, Japan’s population was half of ours. They had 40,000 sentenced offenders in jail. We had 780,000. In other words, we had ten times as many people in jail per capita. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I mean, why?

In the last twenty-five years or so, our prison population has almost tripled. Today, instead of having 780,000 people in jail, we’ve got 2.3 million. That’s now sixteen times as many per capita.

There is a fairness issue in here. The black community has been devastated by the way that drug laws are enforced. In part, I look at this as a former Marine. I was in a system that was highly disciplined but also believed in fairness and accountability. The only way you can make a system work, and have people respect it, is to have people believe that it’s fair. And we have a system now that’s not fair.

For instance, look at how much of the increase in incarceration rates has been driven by nonviolent offenses like drug possession. Or [a recent article] looking at reducing the crack cocaine sentences because the distinction between the crack cocaine and regular cocaine sentences was nonsensical. It’s an issue that’s really important in the black community. I didn’t just spring this, I talked a lot about it during the campaign. Chuck Schumer let me share a hearing. I wanted to look at the economic impact of this as a way to get it going. But I’m gonna stay on it.

WM: Still, this VP speculation has grown to a fever pitch. How are you dealing with the public and the press, considering the profile you’ve had in the last year?

JW: My life really hasn’t changed that much. There are some limitations in the way that you might be able to engage people in lively debate [laughs], but I’ve learned how to do that. I was at a bar on Saturday night, it was a Marine Corps birthday and two guys from my platoon in Vietnam were in, my son was up. There was one guy, there’s always one at a bar, who came up and started, like, really trying to provoke me. My daughter Sarah is standing there and she said, “Dad, don’t hit him. You’re a senator now.”