A tangled Webb: Virginia’s one-term senator aims for the White House

Does former Virginia Senator Jim Webb
stand a chance as a presidential candidate?  Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Washington Times/Zuma Press Does former Virginia Senator Jim Webb stand a chance as a presidential candidate? Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Washington Times/Zuma Press

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

If you had asked us a month ago to name which politician would be the first to officially challenge Hillary Clinton’s (as yet unannounced) bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, we probably would have picked former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, or perhaps Vermont’s rumpled socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. And if you had asked us to narrow it down to just politicians from Virginia, we probably would have picked Mark Warner before we thought of Jim Webb.

Yes, there were rumors that Webb was considering a bid, but we just couldn’t believe that a man who so hated the Senate’s glacial pace and forced glad-handing that he quit after one term would actually mount a campaign. But there he is, all over the YouTubes, looking like a guy in a get-rich-quick infomercial as he ponderously intones that “thousands of concerned Americans from across the political spectrum have urged me to run for President.”

Of course, this was just an announcement that Webb is forming a presidential exploratory committee, but the fact that he was first out of the gate implies that he really thinks he can give Clinton a run for her money (and believe us, there will be a lot of money).

One thing Webb makes clear in his announcement is that he will be running as a uniter and a centrist, someone who can “create an environment where leaders from both parties and from all philosophies would feel compelled to work together for the good of the country.” How this differentiates him from Hillary Clinton he doesn’t exactly say.

Don’t get us wrong—we like Jim Webb. We find his pugnacious, no-bullshit attitude refreshing, and enjoyed how willfully he ignored political niceties while he was in office (this is, after all, a man who began his Senate career by walking angrily away from President George W. Bush at a White House reception, and was rumored to carry a concealed weapon in the capitol—rumors fueled by the fact that one of his aides was arrested entering the Russell Senate Office Building with a briefcase containing a loaded pistol and two full magazines). But the idea that he can wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary by being even more pragmatic and compromising seems laughable, at best.

As if to underscore the size of Webb’s challenge, President Obama completely eclipsed his announcement less than 24 hours later by announcing a set of sweeping changes to the U.S. government’s immigration policies. Even though the changes were relatively modest, and well within the historical norm (almost every president since JFK has taken similar executive action), the GOP promptly exploded into apoplexy, with various Republican members of Congress threatening government shutdown, impeachment and worse.

In a revealing profile of Webb in The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza reports that, according to friends, what might really be driving Webb’s presidential ambitions is a sense that his contributions as a senator (including a suggestion to then-Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. normalize relations with Burma) were never sufficiently acknowledged. True or not, it’s definitely the most believable explanation we’ve heard for the man’s quixotic presidential quest.

The question is, can a one-term senator well out of the public eye ride a political grudge all the way to the White House? A quick shake of the Odd Dominion Magic 8 Ball gives the answer we suspected all along: “Outlook not so good.”

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