What the Hell Happened to Jim?—James Webb Talks Like Pat Buchanan, Votes Like Harry Reid

During the 2006 elections, there was one candidate for office who excited disaffected conservatives more than any other. No, it wasn’t a Republican like John Hostettler, Walter Jones, or even Ron Paul. It wasn’t any of the candidates who took up the immigration-restrictionist banner while the Bush administration was pushing for amnesty. Instead the great paleoconservative hope was James Webb, a newly minted Democrat running a longshot, yet ultimately successful, campaign for U.S. Senate from Virginia against incumbent Republican George Allen.

Webb enjoyed the support of many paleo bloggers familiar to readers of this webzine. The leading paleo magazines discussed his candidacy in the same glowing terms that once appeared in reviews of his books. My former boss, The American Conservative editor Scott McConnell, hoped Webb would be Virginia’s “most interesting emissary to the upper chamber since the 19th century” and jokingly asked the day after the midterm elections, “Is it too soon for a ‘Webb for President’ bandwagon?” Not to be outdone, I observed, “Webb is presented as a kind of folk hero, equal parts Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and—at least among his more conservative backers—Ronald Reagan.” The specific comparisons were made by my sources, but the high hopes were mine as well.

And why shouldn’t they have been? Despite his popularity with the netroots, Webb’s writings had distinguished him more clearly as a man of the right than Allen the Republican presidential wannabe. If paleoconservatism is, as Chilton Williamson has written, “the expression of rootedness: a sense of place and of history, a sense of self derived from forebears, kin, and culture,” then Webb easily fits the bill—he was after all the author of books like Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.

So the question then becomes: Why has Jim Webb proved such a boringly conventional Democratic senator? Far from being some kind of right-leaning maverick, he has voted with his fellow Democrats in the Senate nearly 90 percent of the time. Were we wrong to ever expect otherwise?

Webb’s history as a decorated Marine, Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary, a Republican, and a trenchant foe of post-1960s countercultural liberalism is well known. His hippie-bashing was far tougher than that of any Rush Limbaugh imitator on the AM dial. “Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” Webb once told a radio interviewer. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to watch her slit her wrist.” Yet when Webb wrote about politics and culture, his material was as at home in Chronicles as in the Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.

“The culture so dramatically symbolized by the Southern redneck [is] the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether,” Webb wrote in Born Fighting. “And for the last fifty years the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions in order to make them, at best, irrelevant to America’s future growth.” Webb described “rednecks” as an “obstacle to the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness.”

Most of the above words, published as recently as 2004, could have been written by paleoconservative historian Roger McGrath, who penned a favorable review of Born Fighting for Chronicles. Some of it is even reminiscent of the late Sam Francis. Webb’s 1990 speech at the Confederate memorial was also bolder in its defense of his “redneck” heritage than anything Allen ever mustered: “I am not here to apologize for why they fought, although modern historians might contemplate that there truly were different perceptions in the North and South about those reasons, and that most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery.”

Webb was also fortunate in his opponents. While a conservative case could be made for George Allen, the other candidate in Virginia’s Democratic primary was Harris Miller, a technology industry lobbyist. Miller was a leading proponent of both mass immigration and non-immigrant visa policies that promote the offshore outsourcing of American jobs. In a Democratic debate, Webb controversially called Miller “the anti-Christ of outsourcing,” a line borrowed from a paleo anti-outsourcing activist.

Finally, Webb’s prescient 2002 Washington Post op-ed opposing the Iraq War, “Heading for Trouble: Do We Really Want to Occupy Iraq for the Next 30 Years?” caught the attention of antiwar conservatives. His opposition to the coming invasion based on conservative-realist grounds was preferable to the simplistic liberal anti-Bush talking points. His military credentials made him impossible to caricature as soft on defense, much less a pacifist. And the column even began with a reference to a Toby Keith song.

Even non-paleo commentators detected Webb’s populist-conservative streak. In a New Yorker profile, Peter Boyer concluded that Webb “almost seems a Pat Buchanan conservative.” Writing in his Bloomberg News column, Andrew Ferguson called Webb “a Buchanan Democrat.” In a longer, perceptive Weekly Standard piece, Ferguson dubbed Webb “the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland.”

A little over a year into his first term, and less than a year away from becoming Virginia’s senior senator, Jim Webb so far looks like something else entirely: a paleoconservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

As an appointee in the Johnson and Nixon administrations, a writer, and a thinker, Moynihan had many admirers on the right, especially among the neoconservatives. But in the U.S. Senate, Moynihan was a standard-issue liberal voting the Democratic Party line. On foreign policy he would occasionally side with the neoconservatives against the New York Times, but on domestic policy hardly ever. Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action was an early salvo in the debate over welfare reform. But Moynihan ended his career voting against welfare reform, siding with Marian Wright Edelman liberals against a president of his own party.

 

Will Webb also roll over and play party regular? Washington has a way of taming mavericks and draining people of everything that makes them interesting. Steve Sailer once referred to “the Joe Liebermans and Daniel Patrick Moynihans who talk like Irving Kristol but vote like Walter Mondale.” Webb writes like Pat Buchanan but votes like Harry Reid.

In 2006, Webb ran as a pro-abortion defender of Roe v. Wade, the single issue that gave his conservative admirers the most pause, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that he has a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. But on a number of other issues he has been more likely to take the liberal line than act as an independent conservative or as one who defies the left-right political spectrum. He’s no radical—the National Journal rankings put him toward the center of Senate Democrats—but neither does he buck the leadership much. Webb’s rating from Americans for Democratic Action, the gold standard in evaluating liberalism, is 85 percent.


A putative cultural conservative divorced from social conservatism, Webb received a zero from the Family Research Council in 2007. But he got an A from the left-wing National Education Association. While the Club for Growth does not always pick the right targets, a senator who is reasonably fiscally conservative ought to vote with them much more often than 13 percent of the time, as Webb did last year.


Webb voted 100 percent of the time with the AFL-CIO, the Utility Workers Union of America, and the National Association of Social Workers. The man who once called race-conscious affirmative action “a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand” voted with the NAACP 93 percent of the time and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights 85 percent of the time.

Immigration reformers had particularly high hopes for Webb. Peter Brimelow, who has known the senator for decades, even invited him to play some role in the restrictionist webzine VDARE. (Webb declined, preferring to stay in the mainstream media.) Yet Americans for Better Immigration gives him a middling C-minus rating, assessing his record as being weak on reducing illegal immigration but bolstered by votes to reduce “unnecessary visas” to foreign workers. Webb initially voted for the McCain-Kennedy-Kyl amnesty bill of 2007 and then helped reject it by voting against cloture. But by that point, the bill’s defeat appeared likely and even pro-amnesty Sam Brownback had switched sides.

Webb hasn’t gone wobbly on the war, though some antiwar activists criticize him for voting for supplementals that fund the Iraq mission without setting any timelines for withdrawal. He has also introduced legislation complimenting Walter Jones’ House bill requiring congressional approval before the war can be widened to Iran, unless there is an imminent risk of attack. He is still touted as a promising running mate for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. But is he really more valuable to traditional conservatives than a Walter Jones—or even a Chuck Hagel?

In retrospect, some warning signs were there early on. One can understand how the Iraq War could cause Webb to break with George W. Bush and George Allen, both of whom he had endorsed in 2000. It becomes harder to see how he could so readily bury the hatchet with John Kerry, a man whose hand Webb refused to shake for 20 years after the Vietnam War. But perhaps Webb’s view that Kerry had been mistreated by the Swiftboat Veterans in 2004 is a possible explanation. Webb’s sudden embrace of Bill Clinton, however, is most difficult to fathom.

“Every time I see him salute a Marine,” Webb remarked to an interviewer, “it infuriates me.” In January 2001, Webb enthused in the Wall Street Journal, “It is a pleasurable experience to watch Bill Clinton finally being judged, even by his own party, for the ethical fraudulence that has characterized his entire political career.” Yet when Clinton came to Virginia to campaign for Webb, this went down the memory hole, along with much of Webb’s past opposition to feminism and racial preferences.

It is also possible that Webb’s cultural conservatism never had any policy or ideological content, but was simply a manifestation of his personal loyalties and affections. His celebrated post-election op-ed about class conflict and income inequality contained no real policy prescriptions and a telling dismissal of “God, gays, guns, abortion, and the flag.” The anti-outsourcing writer Rob Sanchez complained during the primary that Webb’s rhetoric on immigration and H-1B visas was not yet matched by substantive solutions.

 

Andrew Ferguson also noticed during the campaign that Webb was trying to synthesize positions that cannot easily be reconciled, such as amnesty for illegal immigrants coupled with tough employer sanctions and attacks on high CEO salaries alongside “a cut in the capital gains tax, in case a redneck wants to sell his stocks.” But Ferguson didn’t deny Webb had political promise, arguing “this inversion—the use of multiculturalism to advance the ethnic interests of white people, and the use of warrior rhetoric to discredit the Bush administration’s war—might be extremely valuable to Democrats, if they knew what they were doing.”


Does Webb know what he is doing? Some speculate that he is merely trying to build up his credibility within the Democratic Party before pushing for reforms or showing his true passions. Representing New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan always had to look nervously to his left, fearing a challenge by someone like Bella Abzug or the state Liberal Party. Webb’s Virginia is more conservative and congenial.


Unfortunately, the liberal northern Virginia suburbs are Webb’s base of support. Without huge margins there, even the Macaca-stained Allen would have beaten him—a more adroit Republican could still do so in 2012. Maybe the fact that Webb was “Born Fighting” means he will eventually spend his Senate career doing the same. But so far, the voting records of Jim Webb and Pat Moynihan have more in common with each other than they do with either man’s writings.


W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

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