Jim Webb Agonistes

The general take on former senator Jim Webb’s performance in Tuesday night’s first Democratic presidential debate was that style aside (his grumpy complaints about not getting enough time were characteristic) he revealed himself to be a politician out of step with his party. On guns, affirmative action, “bipartisanship” and the Iran Nuclear Deal, he struck notes well to the right of the rest of the field; it goes without saying he was also the only person on the stage who mentioned being in Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet as a credential.

Truth is Webb hasn’t been running much of a presidential campaign, and he probably all but disqualified himself anyway when he waffled on the the displaying of the Confederate Battle Flag when most Republicans were abandoning it. But there was something about his poor showing in the debate that made observers think of it as a symbolic moment.

At TNR Elspeth Reeve reminded us that Webb was in some circles touted as the “It Guy” in 2007 after his boffo response to Bush’s State of the Union Address. I think she overstates it a bit; I was on a liberal list-serve back then in which the idea of Webb being Obama’s or Clinton’s running-mate was regularly discussed, and generally found lacking.

But it’s Reeve’s argument that Webb represents the entire pre-Obama Democratic preoccupation with white working-class and/or southern white voters–including the political strategy of both Clintons–that really gives me pause. After cataloguing, rather over-generally, post-2004 Democratic angst about their inability to connect with “rednecks,” Reeve makes this retroactive judgment:

Today, it’s clear that liberals did not have to change. They had to wait. It wasn’t new ideas that fixed Democrats’ problems. It was demographics, and a cultural shift in their direction. In between the era of Nascar angst and this election is the Obama administration. But the bridge between the old view and the new one is Hillary Clinton.

In Tuesday’s debate, though, Hillary Clinton highlighted her proposals that would undo some of her husband’s signature legislation, including his draconian 1994 crime bill. She talked about “reforming criminal justice,” saying “we need to tackle mass incarceration.”

In 2008, Hillary was downing shots of whiskey with voters. Compared to Obama, she boasted, “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on.” Now Clinton seeks to hold on to Obama’s coalition. This August, she met with Black Lives Matter activists and tried to explain her husband’s record. “I do think that there was a different set of concerns back in the ’80s and the early ’90s,” Clinton said. “And now I believe that we have to look at the world as it is today, and try and figure out what will work now.”

If this is all you had to go by, you wouldn’t know that Bill Clinton showed remarkable and sustained strength among African-American voters, despite Ricky Ray Rector and welfare reform and the 1994 Crime Bill (which was not, BTW, “signature” Clinton legislation; it was signature Biden legislation that contained some benign signature Clinton priorities like 100,000 cops deployed in community policing strategies and an Assault Weapons Ban and the Violence Against Women Act). Remember his reputation as “the first black president?” That didn’t come out of nowhere.

I also have to express some reservations about the underlying suggestion that an interest in appealing to white working class voters is inherently disreputable or involves a morally dubious choice. These voters were obviously central to the progressive coalition from the 1920s through the 1970s; Since then, and even now, Democrats have had reason to believe a segment of this part of the electorate is open to their appeals without any sacrifice whatsoever of the party’s commitments to nonwhite voters. And while HRC is indeed trying to “hold onto Obama’s coalition,” if she slips at all the votes necessary to win have to come from somewhere. Maybe they will come from professional women. But she might want to stay in practice downing a shot and a beer.

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.