Jim Webb’s Angry Proto-Candidacy

So word is Jim Webb is serious about a 2016 presidential campaign. But as Jason Zengerle astutely observes at TNR, Webb’s political energy level has in the past been closely related to his resentments:

The most important thing to understand about Webb is that he’s driven by anger and resentment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After serving as a Marine rifle platoon leader in Vietnam, Webb attended Georgetown Law School, where he was repulsed by his anti-war classmates who had dodged the draft….

Webb’s law school ordeal turned him into an impassioned and effective advocate for Vietnam Veterans who, he complained, were “invisible.” In books and in speeches, he implored Americans to give the men and women who’d fought in Vietnam the same respect they afforded those who’d fought in World War I and World War II. At the same time, he raised his public profile eventually coming to the attention of Ronald Reagan, who in 1987 appointed him Secretary of Navy.

In 2006, Webb decided to run for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat out of anger at the Bush administration and the Iraq War. “I’m finally frustrated enough that I think I’m gonna run,” he wrote to his friend, fellow Vietnam vet and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey. On the campaign trail, Webb wore the combat boots of his son Jimmy, who was then serving as a Marine in Iraq, and frequently blasted Bush….

Naturally, the reason Webb is now pondering a presidential run is anger—this time over the Obama administration’s new military campaign in Iraq and Syria and the Democratic Party’s hawkish turn. “Our country has been adrift,” Webb said yesterday. “We continue to be trapped in the never-ending, never-changing entanglements of the Middle East.”

Webb’s anger has served him—and, oftentimes, the country—well over the years. The problem with all of this is that once the proximate cause of Webb’s anger is resolved and his frustration dissipates, so does Webb’s interest in politics. He lasted just one year as Reagan’s Navy Secretary before resigning over proposed budget cuts. And he served only one term in the Senate, ultimately deciding not to seek reelection despite the fact that his biggest legislative priority, an ambitious plan to reform the criminal justice system, remained unfinished. “He loathed the elemental chore of incumbency—the endless fundraising loop—and was temperamentally ill-suited to the pace and grind of Senate work,” Newsweek’s Peter Boyer wrote. In the end, he preferred writing books.

While it’s possible that the Obama administration’s military campaign in the Middle East will continue to escalate, it’s hard to envision it turning into a catastrophe on the scale of Vietnam or the second Iraq War—and it’s equally hard to imagine Hillary Clinton, hawkish as she may be, morphing into a figure as loathsome, in Webb’s mind, as a draft-dodging Georgetown law students or George W. Bush. Absent those motivating factors, I just don’t see Webb—the rare politician who doesn’t crave the spotlight—sustaining a presidential campaign.

That sounds about right to me. Webb’s most prominent non-political fame is as a writer, and perhaps his best-known book is a well-regarded history of the Scots-Irish, his own ethnic group, entitled Born Fighting. Webb definitely lives up, or down, to every Scots-Irish stereotype of single-minded vengefulness, which can be a virtue but is more often a vice (see Jackson, Andrew).

Being from a background similar to Webb’s, I fear his temperament as much as I admire his courage and eloquence (his response to George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union Address will long remain a model of that particular genre). If Scheiber’s right, his anger with Obama over national security policy will burn out before 2016 votes are cast, and those who want a real challenger to Hillary Clinton could be disappointed. But on the other hand, for those who simply want to “keep Hillary honest” without denying her the nomination, maybe Webb is just the fiery tonic the doctor ordered.

UPDATE: I originally attributed the TNR article in question to Noam Scheiber rather than Jason Zengerle. I don’t know what it is about Jason–if I’m not misspelling his name I’m attributing his work to others. Apologies!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.