Web, Lieberman and the Netroots
As progressive bloggers focus on ousting Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman from office for his alleged disloyalty to Democrats, in Virginia, another candidate who embodied the Republican cause has infiltrated the Democratic Party. But ironically, the bloggers support this former Reagan official.
Jim Webb, a Vietnam combat veteran who served as Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, is not only the new darling of the national netroots in his challenge to Republican incumbent George Allen; he was recruited to run for office by Internet activists. Webb, an iconoclastic, progun, prochoice, antiwar, libertarian, economic populist from a rural military family, recently declared his membership in the Democratic Party. In a summer campaign season punctuated by talk of purges and ideological purity, online enthusiasm for Webb's candidacy tells a different story about blog activism, raising fundamental questions about the netroots' emerging electoral strategy.
Do the drastically different receptions to Webb and Lieberman reveal that the netroots movement is incoherent--questioning a longtime Democrat's party commitment while embracing a former Reagan official? Is it pragmatic--more accepting of red-state candidates who offer what conservative electorates want to hear? Is it fundamentally antiwar--fixated on showing Democratic candidates that the road to Washington leads through Baghdad? Or, like most voting blocs, is it simply selective--turning on Lieberman because of his particularly cloying support for Bush but still open to compelling mavericks like Webb?
Understanding Webb enthusiasm starts with understanding his colorful life. After graduating from the US Naval Academy in 1968, he chose a commission in the Marine Corps and served in a rifle platoon in Vietnam, where he was highly decorated. Later he served as Secretary of the Navy, but he resigned in 1988 in protest over Congressionally mandated cuts in the force. The US military has shaped Webb's worldview and anchored his career. Out of uniform, he was still close to combat, writing war novels and screenplays, working as the "first visiting writer" at the Naval Academy and covering the US Marines in Beirut for PBS, which earned him an Emmy Award. While Webb grew up a Democrat, the Vietnam era turned him into a Republican.
Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Naval War College professor and Vietnam veteran who has known Webb for more than twenty years, told me that he, Webb and many other military folks became Republicans when the Democratic Party "turned on" veterans after Vietnam. Webb appears to agree with that analysis. In 2001 he complained that President Carter's mass pardon of Americans charged with draft evasion was "insulting" to veterans and proved Carter was "manipulated by the army of antiwar McGovernites who had seized control of the Democratic Party." Today Webb is the antiwar Democrat, trying to wrest centrists back from the Republican Party. Many believe he can do it. Owens warned his conservative friends in a National Review essay that Webb's "sterling character" would appeal to Virginia Republicans. "Let us hope that Webb's move from the Republican party to the Democrats does not adumbrate a major cultural shift," he wrote in February.
Transforming the Race
A major shift is exactly what Virginia's top bloggers had in mind when they heard Webb was mulling the race. "Webb was potentially a transformative person for the Democratic Party," said Lowell Feld, a former government employee and founder of RaisingKaine, one of the top political blogs in Virginia. After doing some research and meeting with Webb, Feld said he was convinced he had the right résumé, attitude and constellation of positions to win. Webb was a forceful opponent of the Iraq War before it began, presciently arguing in September 2002 that unless the United States wanted to "occupy Iraq for the next thirty years," policymakers should recognize that no "absolutely vital national interest" was at stake to justify a "unilateral war" that could compromise the fight against international terrorism. Beyond foreign policy, Feld saw Webb as a "populist on economics and a social libertarian" with deep rural roots, enabling him to appeal to voters on the very themes Virginia Republicans exploit--"patriotism, national security and sociocultural" issues. But Webb was not convinced. So Feld, drawing on his volunteer work with the Draft Wesley Clark operation, created a "Draft James Webb" website in December to demonstrate the appetite for the potential candidate.
Biography and viability ruled the site, which drew more than 1,000 petition signatures and $40,000 in pledges in a few months. Taking a cue from expertise in the local blogs, top national blogs like Daily Kos touted the new Democrat, and the online encouragement helped convince Webb--and many local political players--that he could win.
After Webb entered the race, he shot up the list for total netroots donors through ActBlue.com (ranking fifth at this writing). The Webb campaign clearly appreciated Feld's initiative and results--he was hired this month as netroots coordinator. Virginia Republicans counter that Webb's relationship with the netroots is a liability. Allen Campaign spokesman Bill Bozin told me, "Liberal blogs like Daily Kos are in the same extreme category as MoveOn.org. They're completely out of the American mainstream, and if Jim Webb wants to continue cozying up to the far left, our campaign welcomes it." (The Allen campaign recently hired an e-campaign manager, Philip Guthrie, to lead its Internet outreach.)