Picking up on my last post on the need for a strong female archetype, I'm going to weigh in on chatter relating to this about Jim Webb as VP. In a lot of ways, Webb is considered the candidate typifying the new Democratic Party, the one strong enough to wrest control from the Republicans in 2006. And I suspect that is why Webb is being touted as a possible VP choice. The narrative goes like this; he can persuade white working class voters to pick Obama, shoring up Obama where he is weak. And he is a powerful progressive on issues that are little noticed, like prison reform, income inequality, and national security. I actually sat in on a meeting where a very well respected pollster gave this exact argument about Webb. Webb shares other traits that excite liberals; he is a truly magnificant writer and speaker. His response to the State of the Union, in 2006, was one of the most exciting speeches I had ever seen. In it, he directly called out Bush for lying, took on the issue directly of income inequality, and demanded that Bush change direction on Iraq, and said that if he did not, Democrats would show him the way. It was amazing, and I remember chattering with my brother as we both felt inspired by a person who seemed to finally fill the void of Democratic leadership.
Since then, my attitude has changed, as I have come to understand and respect the strong counter-narrative about who Webb as a politician is. Kathy G's post is a good jumping off point on the subject. Is his rampant misogyny in the past? Perhaps, but it's not clear to me that anyone who can say what he said as an adult in a position of authority can truly be progressive. For instance, along with other sordid pieces of his personal history, he used the Tailhook scandal where female navy personnel were sexually assaulted to attack feminists and liberals. Ezra Klein has said a lot more about this problem, which a lot of liberals ignore for a variety of reasons. I'm not going to add anything more to this argument, as Ezra and Kathy make it extremely persuasively. I will take on the two other false arguments about Webb.
One, Webb has not been a progressive Senator. On Iraq, he has voted to fund the war, on retroactive immunity for telecom companies, he sided with the telecom companies, and on the issue of inequality, he has been an obstacle to progress, voting against a Bernie Sanders-sponsored piece of legislation to raise income taxes on people earning more than $1 million a year to fund special education, a vote Senate expert Bob Geiger called 'disgusting' And let's be honest, he has completely failed to follow through with his State of the Union response. Even that speech, considered now, shows some of the cracks in the facade. Webb rails against a 'precipitous withdrawal', and argues we should not take 'one step back from the War on Terror'. On both core progressive value sets - national security and economic inequality - Webb does not vote the way he talks. To be sure, his GI Bill is important, and he is a far better public servant than George Allen. I like Webb, I respect Webb, but I do not believe that Webb shares our values. A VP is a heartbeat away from the Presidency, and Webb will in all likelihood not be a progressive President.
What's left is Webb's political ability to bring white working class voters to the Democratic side. And this is where the Webb-as-VP talk really falls apart. While Webb is seen as a candidate who appeals to the Appalachian white working class vote (Ross Douthat makes the case, but it is a widespread elite opinion), there's actually no evidence he does. Today, he's far less popular in Virginia than John Warner, with a net disapproval rating among males of six points and eight points among gun owners. He has a narrow four point net approval rating among whites, and he's about as popular in all regions of the state, with a slight edge in the Shenandoah region (though still far less popular than Warner). Webb just isn't that well liked in Virginia.
Still, if he got elected in Virginia in 2006, who cares? Surely he can bring the same bevy of white working class voters he brought in 2006 to the Obama ticket in 2008, right? Well, no. His 2006 victory was based on a coalition of white liberals and African-Americans. Both his primary and general victories saw his marginal vote runups in Northern Virginia counties. In Fairfax, Arlington, and Loudon Counties, which are hubs of DC, Webb was part of a changing demographic scene which saw more Democrats vote for Democrats.
More important than the growing population of Northern Virginia, the increase in Democratic performance in suburban and exurban areas has helped Democrats gain electoral victories. Exurban areas constitute the outermost boundaries of any metropolitan area, such as Loudon County. Loudoun represents the fastest-growing county in the country. Between 2000 and 2006, Loudoun's voting-age population increased by 73,000 people. This increase has changed the demographics of the county, bringing more middle class, and well-educated voters who support democratic candidates into the area. In 2000, Al Gore received just 41 percent of the vote in Loudon, but by 2005, Tim Kaine won Loudoun with 53 percent. Democratic gains continued in 2006 when Jim Webb won Loudoun County with 50% of the vote.
In other words, there's nothing special about Webb. Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb all did very well in Virginia, and Webb in particular got his votes from liberals in the North because that's where the Democrats are.
There are lots of reasons to like and respect Jim Webb. Prison reform is an essential element of a socially just country, and the way he talks about income inequality is really important. The GI Bill is a remarkable and substantial achievement, and it will damage John McCain's campaign. He'll do us proud as a conservative Democrat. But I just don't see how he would be a good VP pick.