Web, Lieberman and the Netroots

Web, Lieberman and the Netroots

As progressive bloggers seek the ouster of Joe Lieberman, they have recruited “Reagan Democrat” Jim Webb to challenge George Allen in Virginia. What does this say about netroots Democrats’ emerging electoral strategy–if there is one?


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.)

Webb won last month’s primary against Harris Miller, a prominent Democratic lobbyist who had a head start, more money, rock-solid party credentials and endorsements from local officials and the Washington Post. Miller lobbed Lamont-like attacks about party loyalty to no avail, lecturing Webb in one debate, “When we were fighting in the trenches to defeat George Bush and George Allen in 2000, you weren’t just voting for them; you were endorsing them.”

Virginia Democrats are betting that Webb’s Republican credentials are an asset in the general election. “Jim calls himself a Reagan Democrat,” explains his campaign spokesperson Kristian Denny Todd, “and for the very reasons that he has come home to the Democratic Party, he feels like there are hundreds of people in the same boat.” She argues that many Virginians are ready to bolt the GOP for its extremism on national security and taxes, if there is a centrist alternative.

Webb’s supporters believe that unlike Lieberman, who is under siege for blindly following the GOP’s failed policies, principle compelled Webb to turn against Allen, the popular Republican incumbent and presidential aspirant. In a prepared statement last week, Denny Todd said Allen’s vote against homeland security funding “demonstrated his blind loyalty to George Bush” and made Virginians “less safe.”

Litmus Tests?

Webb and Lieberman are different in many ways, but it is their positions on the war that captivate people. Joe Eyer, the political director for Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign, says it “defies logic” for bloggers to tout a former Republican like Webb while savaging Lieberman’s Democratic credentials, and he believes the only explanation is the war. “[Bloggers say] they are bringing different perspectives to the table, but Webb proves there is a litmus test for their support,” he said. The punditocracy has also been castigated antiwar “litmus tests.” For example, the centrist Progressive Policy Institute’s Marshall Wittmann, a recovering Republican himself, recently derided top bloggers as “McGovernites with modems” who have “only one issue, the war.”

Yet if netroots activists have a litmus test on the war, it is not rigorously applied. The netroots hold very favorable views of several incumbents and potential presidential candidates who either were for the war or still support it, according to a recent MyDD survey. Besides, antiwar candidates hold a view that is overwhelmingly supported not only on the left but across mainstream public opinion. A majority of Americans believe that it was a mistake to invade Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction and promote democracy and that the United States should end the occupation soon. That position may be politically potent, but popularity is not a litmus test.

Many netroots activists emphasize that Webb’s special appeal is not because of any specific policy–even the war–but in the attitude and potential for victory he brings to the race. Waldo Jaquith, a 27-year-old Charlottesville techie who runs one of the oldest blogs in Virginia, says that primary voters were not trying to nominate their mirror image but a viable candidate who is still clearly more conservative than the base. “I recognize I’m farther left than the bulk of the voting public,” he told me.

As the midterm elections unfold, bloggers have demonstrated they are much more inclined to take risks by testing unorthodox campaign strategies. The netroots tend to support rebels, first-timers, obscure insurgents and comeback kids more than the traditional party apparatus, and that is the bloggers’ competitive advantage. (They haven’t earned an audience by repeating DNC talking points, either.) One Democratic consultant, who has worked on several presidential campaigns, told me he thinks bloggers are “looking for causes to champion” that can rally their constituencies. “Those causes usually have more to do with opposition to the mainstream than with the individuals they choose to champion,” he argued, and now bloggers are trying to “demonstrate their clout” by unseating an incumbent or electing a candidate who might never have been selected by the party elders.

The diverging paths of Jim Webb and Joe Lieberman suggest a netroots strategy that is driven as much by political pragmatism as ideological purity, where the Iraq War is critical but not paramount, and joining the party late is far more acceptable than leaving early. It also proves that if netroots Democrats care about one thing more than aggressive partisanship, it’s winning.

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