If this guy doesn't win, just throw in the towel ...
Fight to the Finish
Bring It On: Can the Dems exploit public worry about the war and retake Capitol Hill? A case study in Virginia.
By Jonathan Darman and Evan Thomas
Sept. 18, 2006 issue - Candidates for the November elections usually campaign flat-out in the week after Labor Day. Jim Webb, Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from Virginia, took off to hang out with a bunch of 20-year-olds on a Marine base in North Carolina, to drink beer, make small talk and wait. He was not on holiday: one of the young men was Webb's son, Jimmy, 24, a lance corporal in the Marines who was about to ship out to Iraq. "I had to clear my schedule and clear my head," says Webb. "I just wanted to be with my son."
Webb is not a normal politician. He is a warrior, with the medals (a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars) and the wounds (shrapnel in his head, back, left arm, kidney and left leg) to show for it. He comes from a family that has fought in America's wars back to the Revolution. An ancestor rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Civil War; Webb's father was an Air Force pilot in World War II. Webb has been preparing his own son for war since childhood. The two have walked battlefields from Antietam to Shiloh to Verdun to Webb's own "fields of fire" in Vietnam. Webb hates the Iraq war and is now running against it, but he taught his son the family code: soldiers do their duty, regardless of whether the politicians who lead them into wars are right or wrong. Jimmy understands, says Webb, "because he's part of a continuum. My family has always done this."
Webb's decision to become a politician could be an answered prayer for the Democratic Party. Ever since Vietnam, Democrats have been bedeviled by charges that they are "soft" on national security. GOP operatives now jeer at the Democrats as "Defeatocrats." And last week, as President George W. Bush delivered a flurry of speeches staking out security as the centerpiece of the fall campaign, the Republican National Committee launched a Web site called America Weakly, aimed at undermining voters' confidence in the opposition party. But with polls showing some of the highest levels of antiwar sentiment since Vietnam—with roughly three out of five Americans saying that they disapprove of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war—the Democrats have a chance to recapture Congress, if only they can overcome the perception that they are somehow weak. The war may dominate the 2008 election as well: voters overwhelmingly cite Iraq over the economy as the No. 1 priority for the next president.
John Kerry was a genuine war hero, but in 2004 he was pilloried for growing his hair long and attending peace rallies with the likes of Jane Fonda. No one is going to "Swift Boat" Jim Webb. During Vietnam, he scorned antiwar protesters with the same contempt he shows today for so-called chicken hawks, the neocons who never served in the military but were all for invading Iraq. Webb refuses to speak of sending "forces" into combat. To Webb, they are soldiers who have lives and families to live for. Webb's opponent, incumbent GOP Sen. George Allen Jr., plays the good-ole-boy superpatriot. With his cowboy boots and swagger, he is a reasonable facsimile of George W. Bush. But next to a hardened combat veteran like Webb, he can seem like a tough-guy wanna-be.
Webb's electoral chances went from long shot to medium shot a month ago after his opponent blundered by referring to one of Webb's supporters, an Indian-American college student, as a "macaca," a racially offensive term that refers to a genus of monkey. But Webb must contend with some serious liabilities. As with most other Democratic candidates, he has yet to find a way to express his opposition to the Iraq war that does not sound as if he is either (a) advocating a policy of "cut and run," or (b) complaining and criticizing but offering no clear way out. Stiffly refusing to pander on the stump, Webb tends to ramble on, describing nuances and complexities. "He's never run for office before, and you can tell," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He doesn't know how to give a speech. He seems incapable of comparison campaigning, much less negative campaigning." Way behind Allen in fund-raising, Webb lacks Allen's common touch. Walking around a street fair in Salem, Va., last Saturday, Webb had to be formally introduced to each voter.
In his brooding intensity, he can seem haunted. In Vietnam, 56 members of the platoon Webb commanded were killed or wounded. Webb threw himself in front of a grenade to save one soldier (his badly infected wound finally forced him to resign from the Marines). Webb seethed when he returned to civilian life, and never forgot those veterans who had turned against the war. In 1984, Webb was working with a group involved in building the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Webb met with sculptor Frederick Hart, who had been an antiwar protester. As Hart walked into what was supposed to be a friendly session, Webb sneered, "Welcome to the other side of the picket line, motherf---er." (Webb says he was joking with Hart, a close friend, about a conflict over the design of the memorial.) Webb has mellowed, sort of. He won't overtly criticize men, like Allen, who didn't serve in Vietnam. (Allen had a student deferment.)
But it was Allen's obtuseness about the Iraq war that drew Webb into politics. Webb was an early opponent of invading Iraq. He had opposed the 1991 gulf war because, he said at the time, he was worried that American troops could get bogged down in a long occupation if they pushed on to Baghdad. In a speech at a Naval Institute conference in 2002, he warned that invading Iraq would be a "strategic blunder," a distraction from the war on terror and a potential quagmire for U.S. soldiers. At about that time, Webb met with Allen to press his senator to oppose an invasion. According to Webb, Allen responded, "I feel like you're asking me to be disloyal to my president." (Allen's office confirmed the meeting but declined to comment on a private conversation.)
Webb began thinking about opposing Allen's 2006 re-election bid. At the time, he was writing a book about the warrior tradition of his kinsmen, the Scots-Irish who settled Appalachia and have been disproportionately represented in America's bloodiest battles. Their hero was Andrew Jackson, and Webb regarded Old Hickory as a soldier-statesman role model.
Webb had been a Democrat until, as he puts it, "Jimmy Carter made me a Republican" by appearing weak on foreign policy. Webb went back into government service in the Reagan administration, first as an assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs, then as secretary of the Navy. Among his causes was stripping away combat decorations from veterans who had not demonstrably earned them. He quit the Pentagon after two years rather than going along with a diminution in the size of the 600-ship Navy.
Webb was already a cult figure at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. He charged that academy officials were promoting academics over physical toughness and wrote a defiant Washingtonian magazine article, "Women Can't Fight," after the Academy went coed in the late 1970s. Friends say Webb can seem a little defensive when he launches into a long explanation of why he lost the Academy boxing championship to a fellow midshipman, a mauler named Oliver North, back in 1967.
Webb is something of a literary figure as well as a Hollywood screenwriter. His Vietnam roman ? clef, "Fields of Fire," was widely praised; among his books is a brilliant historical novel, "The Emperor's General," about Gen. Douglas MacArthur's running of postwar Japan. Now Allen is trying to portray Webb as a dilettante. "Are we going to choose someone who's spent the last 20 years in service to the state of Virginia as governor and senator? Or do we choose someone whose priority has been writing novels and hanging around Hollywood?" Allen asks.
The GOP's overall strategy to preserve its majorities in the House and Senate is to morph all Democratic candidates into the mold of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But the Democrats have had unusual success at fielding candidates like Webb who hardly fit the "San Francisco Democrat" template. Tammy Duckworth, a female helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat in Iraq in 2004, is running a close race to win an open House seat long held by the GOP in Illinois, and Vice Adm. Joe Sestak, who oversaw combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, has a shot at unseating veteran Republican Rep. Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania. GOP candidates like Weldon are showing signs of nervousness. The No. 2 member of the House Armed Services Committee, Weldon is introducing a resolution to give ground commanders more say in deciding troop levels in Iraq. "I'm not trying to undermine the president," protests Weldon. "I am just asking for a clear plan."
A clear plan is not what voters will hear from Jim Webb, however. Webb takes his cue from another soldier-politician, Dwight Eisenhower, whose approach to the Korean stalemate in 1952 was to argue, somewhat vaguely, that America's foreign policy was in shambles and that voters needed a different set of eyes on the problem. Webb avoids any timetables for getting out of Iraq, preferring to rely on "American ingenuity."
Webb does not strongly stir voters. Last Friday night, at a rally of some 200 people in western Virginia, the ex-Marine did take a shot at Allen. He explained that he had driven that day 300 miles from Camp Lejeune, N.C. "I was thinking that if I was George Allen, I'd have been in a helicopter. But then if I was George Allen I'd have $20 to $30 million and I'd be bought and paid for." Biting words, but Webb spoke in a harsh monotone, like a drill sergeant. He seemed weary. He had arisen at 3 a.m. to see off his son, Jimmy, whose Marine battalion left for Iraq that morning at 5.
With Andrew Romano, Lee Hudson Teslik, Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe
© 2006 MSNBC.com