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.