Jim Webb ended his presidential campaign yesterday. “Presidential” looks weird in that sentence, doesn’t it? Wait ... he was campaigning for President?
Well, no, not really. Webb was campaigning for at least a couple things—a ride on the eventual nominee’s wagon, a gig as the flinty “realist” hood ornament on some cable politics show, a reckoning from a political system he feels doesn’t speak to the economic realities of dudes in orange hunting vests—but the office of President wasn’t one of them. It’s just, well, that’s how you get that stuff: By “running” for “President.”
This is a traditional and well-trod path to visibility and higher political station in the United States (most of the 742 Republican candidates are walking it, too), because it seems fairly low-risk. The thinking goes, I’ll carve out a role in the debates as the voice for a valuable constituency the frontrunner struggles to reach—poor rural whites who skew more conservative than the broader Democratic base, in Webb’s case—and if things break my way, maybe I get scooped up as the running mate, or maybe I trade my endorsement for a cabinet job. It worked for Joe Biden; it worked for Hillary Clinton; it worked, in a manner of speaking, for Sarah Palin; it has not really worked out for Paul Ryan just yet, because he is a petulant weenie and because House Speaker, right now, is the least desirable job on earth.
But CTRL-F back up to the word “seems,” up there. I suspect Jim Webb will have much to say about that word, whenever he’s ready to settle down. In a way, he’s already saying it— has been saying it—in his angry carping about unfair allocation of time during last week’s Democratic debate, and in his whiny remarks yesterday to the National Press Club, in which he hinted around at the possibility of leaving the Democratic party. From Politico:
“I fully accept that my views on many issues are not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party,” Webb told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. The current Democratic hierarchy, he said, “is not comfortable with many of the policies laid forth, and frankly I am not that comfortable with many of theirs.”
On whether he would continue to call himself a Democrat, Webb responded, “We’ll think about that.”
Webb almost certainly means exactly the stuff he said, there—dude is nothing if not sincere—but there’s a subtext nonetheless, and it’s, Hey goddammit, why is everybody so freaked out, it’s like you’ve never even heard a man threaten to turn your head into a canoe before.
This is the danger of trying to define yourself as the voice of a single constituency from over on the margin where you don’t get much time to talk. By necessity your message gets condensed, loses its nuance. You start relying on shorthand, waving the flag ever more frantically, pandering to personal identity rather than expressing your constituency’s policy priorities ... and then, before you know it, all of a sudden you’re the crazy-eyed weirdo leering at a national audience and practically salivating over the story of the time you killed a guy.
I bet this went over like gangbusters with poor rural whites! Unfortunately, it terrified just about everyone else on earth. More to the point, it could not possibly galvanize those poor rural whites enough to offset the rest of the Democratic base’s distaste for the thought of a cabinet office going to a guy who plausibly might hang a necklace of human ears on the wall in it.
There’s a kind of tragedy to this. Clumsy campaigner and surly dingus though he is, Jim Webb also is a hugely accomplished man with by-all-appearances genuine and worthwhile thoughts about, for example, the harmful ongoing consequences of tenant farming for poor whites. And, wasteful horror though the Vietnam War certainly was, the actions during it that won Webb some of the military’s highest honors truly were astonishing and life-saving. And there he was, on the debate stage, by his own choice reducing the former to crude race-baiting and the latter to a ghoulish joke.
The lesson, here, is: Never run for President. Not even with scare-quotes around it. You call down the thunder, and that’s what you get.