I’ll put it plainly: Bill Cosby will helm the National Organization for Women before Jim Webb ever wins a Democratic presidential nomination.
You may not have noticed that Webb formally joined the race late last week. That’s probably because the iconoclastic ex-Virginia senator announced his bid on the eve of the holiday weekend (horrible timing), and because he was largely ignored by the media (horrible candidate, for reasons we will soon explore). But he’s still worth a few keystrokes, at least until he disappears for good, because his doomed candidacy arguably says more about the Democratic party than it says about him.
At a time when the Democrats are moving left – especially during primary season, when voting is dominated by white liberals and people of color – Webb flunks lots of litmus tests. That’s a big problem. There isn’t much room in the party anymore for a centrist with occasional conservative leanings – just as there’s little room in the GOP anymore for a centrist with a few liberal leanings. In today’s polarized parties, mavericks need not apply.
From the Democratic perspective, Webb is “good” on foreign policy (a decorated Vietnam vet, he was an early vocal opponent of George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion), and he’s “good” on income inequality (like Elizabeth Warren, he rails against Wall Street on behalf of the wage-stagnant working stiff). But he has tangled with environmentalists (he supports the Keystone pipeline), he barely talks about climate change, he has assailed affirmative action, as a senator he voted against comprehensive immigration reform and in favor of gun rights…and these days, there’s the dicey issue of the Confederate flag.
Which Webb defends.
Based on that issue alone, I’ll revise my earlier statement: Bill Cosby will volunteer 100 hours at the Philadelphia Rape Crisis Center before Jim Webb ever wins a Democratic nomination.
You can’t hope to lead a racially diverse party if you speak up for the Confederate flag. Which he did the other day, on Facebook: “The Confederate Battle Flag has wrongly been used for racist and other purposes in recent decades. It should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us.”
Webb appeared to be saying that current efforts to lower the flag are divisive; he also seemed to be uninformed about American history, given the fact that Confederates fought under that banner for racist purposes 150 years ago, to keep human beings enslaved. Maybe he’s willfully ignorant on this point because some of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy. In any event, he was a lot blunter in the memoir he wrote in 2004, when he attacked “revisionist politicians and academics” for trying “to defame the entire Confederate Army in a move that can only be termed the Nazification of the Confederacy.”
Well. Not even the Republican-dominated South Carolina Senate is willing to say such things anymore; that chamber voted 37-3 yesterday to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds. We can give Webb some props for sincerely speaking his mind, but, as a practical matter, defending the flag of racism and treason will notch him roughly one percent of the votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (plus footnote Martin O’Malley) will scoop up the white liberals and minorities in the crucial early contests. That’s basically the Democratic primary electorate. Webb has said that he hopes to lure white working-class guys back to the party – a worthy (though daunting) goal, given the fact that those voters have largely bailed since 2000 – but Obama won twice without those voters, and the people around Hillary believe that, if necessary, she can do the same.
Besides, Webb detests the rituals of politics and campaigning. He has few friends in the political world – two former Virginia colleagues, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have already endorsed Hillary – and he’s so quirky that he barely keeps his own people up to speed. His communications director, Craig Crawford, reportedly joked not long ago, “I wake up every morning thinking he will roll into a coffee shop and announce something to the wait staff.”
Ideally, there should be ample room in a primary race for someone who thumbs his nose at party orthodoxy. But there’s no way Webb is going to lure downscale white guys back to the Democrats – not even if they enjoy the sex scenes in his war novels (I bet you’ve clicked the link already), and certainly not in the next six months. Bottom line: Webb is running in the wrong century.
By the way, here’s a tip for Confederate flag lovers: If you want to extol the flag with any scintilla of effectiveness, don’t enlist an anti-gay bigot to lead the charge. It’s bad optics.
In the South Carolina Senate yesterday, lawmaker Lee Bright somehow managed to tie the flag issue to the high court’s gay marriage ruling, ranted about “sin in South Carolina” and said “it is time for the church to rise up.” Bright’s endorsement of theocracy was quite dim, but most entertaining of all was his disgust at the White House being lit in “abomination colors.”
Maybe he’ll text God to ask if we should ban rainbows.