Jim Webb’s Uncertain Trumpet

So Jim Webb wasn’t kidding, it seems. He’s gone from telling the occasional journalist he’s thinking about running for president in 2016 to forming an exploratory committee, the first serious candidate in either party, I believe, to do so. Those Democrats who have been fretting that Hillary Clinton would float to the nomination with no opposition at all must be relieved.

But I gotta say, Webb’s statement on why he is thinking about running–his rationale for candidacy–begins with a note that is bound to sound like nails on a chalkboard (if that’s not too archaic a metaphor!) to a potential progressive constituency unhappy with Barack Obama and afraid Hillary Clinton will continue his “centrist” ways:

I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to ask you to consider the most important question facing America today: Is it possible that our next President could actually lay out a vision for the country, and create an environment where leaders from both parties and from all philosophies would feel compelled to work together for the good of the country, despite all of the money and political pressure that now demands they disagree?

I really, really don’t think the average potential primary supporter of Webb against Clinton is going to kick out the jams for a candidate who thinks the real problem in Washington is insufficient bipartisanship. Been there, done that, with Obama, and even Obama struggles to pay lip service to the idea, particularly now on the eve of an intensely partisan fight over immigration policy.

There’s a way to articulate what I’ve in the past called “grassroots bipartisanship” that might work for a candidate like Webb: expressing a gritty determination to create a new progressive coalition that will impose its will on both parties in Washington. But I don’t think that’s what Webb is doing at this point. The idea that bipartisan governance would be easy with the right leadership–a term that suffuses his statement with an unmistakably martial air–comports with his notorious “antipolitics” posture which constantly projects a contempt for the limitations of, well, everybody else. It’s also consistent with his on-again, off-again engagement with politics.

Do progressives want to go to war with the insanely advantaged Hillary Clinton and then with an insanely well-funded GOP nominee under the banner of what Rob Garver calls “Webb’s Cincinnatus act”? I don’t know. But I’ll take Webb’s proto-candidacy more seriously when I start seeing some sort of activity in an early caucus or primary state.

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.