Is Jim Webb the Ultimate Democratic Dark Horse?

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb listen's to an audience member question while speaking at the National Sheriffs’ Association presidential forum, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in Baltimore.

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Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb listen's to an audience member question while speaking at the National Sheriffs’ Association presidential forum, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in Baltimore.

The Virginia Democrat could end up posing a steep electoral challenge to Hillary Clinton.

We are still months away from the very first US Democratic primary debate, and the full list of candidates who would like to seek the nomination has yet been filled. Indeed, the 2016 presidential campaign is still in the earliest of early phases, where those who have already declared or are thinking about declaring travel the country, give speeches to get their name in the press, search for wealthy people who are prepared to back their effort, and send surrogates and field operatives to the all-important four states that kick of the election season: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

In other words, Americans who are already sick and tired of the campaign news and political process stories will be forced to endure another 18 months.

Even so, there are a couple of obvious trends that we can safely make at this point in the race: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the predominate, unassuming front runner. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is the grouchy but sincere, white-haired political veteran who excites the “get the Wall Street bastards” crowd. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is the young, “we need a new generation in the White House” progressive. And former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee is the odd, quirky attack dog who has no compunction about going after Hillary Clinton’s record.

But we are missing a critical person in this list: Jim Webb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, wartime journalist, and a one-term senator from Virginia. Oh, and he also happened to be a company commander in Vietnam who earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Navy Cross, and two Purple Hearts.

By his own admission, Jim Webb is a loner, which is particularly interesting given the fact that he spent six years of his life in the US Senate—an institution often described as “clubby,” where a member is only as good as his ability to schmooze his colleagues. (Perhaps that’s why he left in 2013 after one term instead of running for re-election?)

Yet, loner or not, Webb has been around the block in numerous roles, from being an assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the navy under president Ronald Reagan (he would resign from the latter in 1988, after only 10 months on the job, over his opposition to budget cuts in the navy) and returned to Washington 18 years later, after beating incumbent senator George Allen despite trailing him in the polls by double-digits. (I was a college freshman in Richmond at the time, and I distinctly remember everyone assuming that Allen would cruise to re-election.)

Perhaps more important than his experience, however, is his relative consistency on matters of national security. He is a self-described “realist” who is openly critical of anyone—regardless of whether they happen to be a Republican or Democrat—who has supported or continues to support the use of US military force in conflicts he deems aren’t in the national interest. He isn’t afraid to buck a president of his own party, like he did during March 2011, when he criticized president Obama’s decision to deploy US aircraft to assist a Libyan rebel movement in danger of being wiped out by the Qaddafi’s regime.

His claim to fame is unarguably his opposition to the war in Iraq launched by the Bush administration in March 2003—a war that proceeded for another eight years, far longer than the public projections of Bush White House and Pentagon officials. Part of Webb’s opposition was personal: his son was eventually deployed to Iraq as a corporal, at a time when the war was going terribly.

But, personal ties aside, the reasons for Webb’s resistance to the war were far more geopolitical: five months before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would do nothing but provide Iran with an opportunity to expand its presence in the Arab world and unleash a Pandora’s box of sectarian violence that would tear the region apart.

Looking at Webb’s op-ed 13 years later, you can’t help but see how prescient his concerns were at the time: that countries like China would take advantage of the US occupation in Iraq to reassert themselves in Asia-Pacific; that a US invasion of Iraq would bring about unintended consequences for US troops who found themselves in the middle of the Iraqi desert; and that the downfall of Saddam, however terrible he was, would force the US to draw military resources away from other regions in order to help stabilize a country that would no longer have a central government.

While this stance is a popular one to take today, they were not too popular when the article was written in Oct. 2002—the same month that overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress voted to give president Bush the authorization to use military force against Saddam’s regime. (Secretary Clinton among them.)

Over the last several weeks, Jim Webb has taken pains to remind Americans about that article he wrote in the Post in what is surely an attempt to demonstrate to Democratic and independent voters that he has the patience, knowledge, sense of history, and foresight to be the 45th commander-in-chief.

Yet, like all candidates, Webb isn’t perfect. If the stereotypes include a Hillary Clinton that is conspiratorial, a Bernie Sanders that is a batty socialist, and a Lincoln Chafee who is an opportunistic New England snob, Jim Webb’s negative trait could be described as ducking questions when giving the answers might be inconvenient.

He refused to go into any detail into whether he supported the Trans-Atlantic Partnership trade deal or the Iranian nuclear agreement during a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball. He shied away from critiquing the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State, telling reporters he didn’t have the kind of information he needed to make an informed decision. Sometimes, it appears to the average viewer watching him on television that he’s trying to have it both ways on an issue: for instance, advising that president Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran could have the effect of enabling Iran’s aggressive behavior if not conducted properly, all the while taking a softer line a month the previous month. This is the kind of “flip-floppy” behavior that got secretary of state John Kerry and governor Mitt Romney into trouble during their respective bids for the presidency. Jim Webb, as a student of history, would be the first one to recognize this.

With negative stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails and Clinton Foundation transactions dominating the news cycle, the political press has largely shied away from covering Jim Webb, other than a few stories following on-air appearances on cable television. But, just as Webb shocked the political world nine years ago by beating an incumbent in John Allen once thought to be presidential material, he could make some waves if and when he announces that he is running to be the next Democratic nominee for president.

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