Video: The Fighting Democrat

By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/6/2006 10:11:25 AM ET 2006-04-06T14:11:25

This week the Democrats trumpeted the debut of their “Fighting Dems” website. It's aim is to showcase the Democratic military veterans running for Congress this year. And this week Democrats touted their poll showing that they have nothing to fear when it comes to perceived feebleness on national security.

A survey of 808 registered voters by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin found that if voters were casting their ballots solely on whom they trusted more to protect U.S. national security, the Democrats and Republicans are in a statistical dead-heat. In past polls, Republicans held a big advantage on the issue.

One might think this would be the perfect time for Democrats to rally behind a Senate candidate who is a highly decorated Marine Corps combat veteran of the Vietnam war, a candidate who also happens to be a charismatic best-selling author and an articulate critic of the Iraq war.

Jim Webb of Virginia is that man, the very prototype of the “fighting Democrat.”

Reaganite and harsh critic of Clinton
But, you might wonder, are Democrats really going to nominate someone who:

  • Served as Secretary of the Navy under a president who most Democrats despised, Ronald Reagan?
  • Has railed against “group identity politics,” as well as against “blatant, government-sponsored reverse discrimination”?
  • Has denounced “the activist Left” with its “edicts of political correctness”?
  • Has launched one scorching attack after another on Bill Clinton, the president most beloved by Democrats in the past 40 years?

Webb said five years ago, after Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, “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.”

Webb added, “Bill Clinton will never live down the arrogance of his final departure.” In a 1999 interview, Webb told the magazine of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, “I cannot conjure up an ounce of respect for Bill Clinton when it comes to the military. Every time I see him salute a Marine, it infuriates me.”

Webb is running in the June 13 primary in Virginia against Harris Miller, a veteran mainstream Democrat who is the former president of the Information Technology Association of America.

Of his rival, Miller had some harsh words of his own. "To simply say you’re a Democrat and not reject the positions you held before, which were the antitheses of fundamental values Democrats hold — many Democrats are going to find it hard to accept that he really is a Democrat today.”

Either Webb or Miller will oppose Republican Sen. George Allen in November. Analyst Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Allen’s seat “Solid Republican,” her safest category for GOP incumbents.

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Webb backed Allen in 2000
In 2000, Webb endorsed Allen in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb; in 1994, Webb endorsed Robb over Republican Oliver North.

Despite his support for Allen six years ago, Webb now sees a need to hold the incumbent accountable for supporting the war. “We got into Iraq because there were not people who asked the right questions. This is an election season and the person I’m running against (Allen) did not ask the right questions.”

Describing himself and other “Reagan Democrats,” Webb said in an interview in his campaign office Wednesday, “These were people who had been the backbone of the traditional Democratic Party and who grew very uncomfortable particularly on the issue of the (Vietnam) war — I was one of them — and who were never comfortable with the Republicans on social issues.”

Webb writes in his 2004 book Born Fighting of "the disdain that many of the advantaged in my generation felt for those who had fought in Vietnam."

“I’ve always been a moderate on social issues," Webb said Wednesday. "I’m pro-choice. My belief is: the power of the government ends at your doorstep. Conservatives should agree with that, too.” While not agreeing with Reagan on abortion, he said, “Ronald Reagan was a really fine president on the issues that I cared about.”

Rural parts of Virginia are full of Reagan Democrats. Take as an example Bedford County, near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the 1964 election, Democrat Lyndon Johnson carried it with 51 percent of the vote. But in 1968 Bedford County went for third party anti-racial integration candidate George Wallace (with 42 percent) and backed Richard Nixon (73 percent) in 1972.

After a move to Democrat Jimmy Carter (51 percent) in 1976, Bedford County never again even came close to voting for a Democratic presidential candidate.

In 2004, President Bush got 70 percent in Bedford County, and when Allen won his Senate seat six years ago, he garnered 67 percent.

If the Democratic nominee won or even reached 45 percent or better in Bedford County and similar rural “Reagan/Bush Democrat” counties, he’d almost surely defeat Allen.

Warning on Iraq
Six months before the invasion of Iraq, Webb warned that the U.S. troops could not occupy and run that country.

What to do now about Iraq? Webb answered: “If you really want to defuse the situation over there, the administration has to say unequivocally that we have no long-term occupation interests in Iraq.”

On withdrawing U.S. troops, he said, “I’m not with the people who say we should get out precipitously. We got in there precipitously, we got in there recklessly; we need to get out carefully, but we need to get out. I think we could be out of Iraq within two years.”

On Iraq, Webb's rival Miller said, “We can’t just pick up overnight and leave because we’d leave behind a humanitarian disaster.” He said the Congress should set “specific goals and objectives that the U.S. military believes are appropriate, and as each of those goals are met, we draw down the number of American troops.”

Miller also said, “We must also make clear we have no long-term intention to stay in Iraq.”

'Disparities inside white America'
Since Webb denounced “blatant, government-sponsored reverse discrimination” in Born Fighting, (an account of the role of the Scots-Irish in American history) we asked him whether he agrees with the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision that a state university can use racial preferences for blacks, Latinos and American Indians as one factor in deciding which students to admit.

Webb said, “The problem with these cases is that they don’t take into account the disparities inside white America. That has always been my hang-up. There’s no such thing as 'white America' the way that it’s defined legally. There are as many different stratifications in white America ethnically and otherwise as there are in the different groups in minority America.”

He said, “There’s a difference between affirmative action and diversity…. I support affirmative action for African-Americans; diversity I agree with also, as long as it’s inclusive and these programs aren't that inclusive of white America in terms of the stratifications in white America…. Affirmative action should only apply to African-Americans; diversity programs should be inclusive and you have to say both together.”

State senator Henry Marsh, who supports Miller, denounced Webb’s statements on affirmative action Wednesday, saying they show “his lack of understanding about the continued impact of race in our society” and “how out of touch he is with the Democratic base.”

Marsh is African-American. If Webb alienates black voters, who comprise about one-fifth of Virginia’s electorate, that could bode ill for his chances.

As for the harsh things he said about Clinton, Webb now strikes a different tone: “The Clinton presidency did a lot of good. I had a lot of problems with Bill Clinton on a personal level and part of that was my anger over the Vietnam War. After 9-11, when I saw the emotional manipulation of the people who fought in Vietnam by people who wanted to get us into Iraq, I sort of lost all my anger."

He concluded, "I’m not here to defend the Clinton administration. I’m more at peace with a lot of the things that made me angry before, but I’m here to talk about now.”

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