Perhaps it’s just part of the ritual of a book tour by an out-of-work politician, but Jim Webb’s coy refusal to rule out a 2016 presidential bid has heightened speculation that the former Virginia senator means to run. Webb is making the rounds of the news talk shows to flog his modestly titled new memoir, I Heard My Country Calling, while also making it clear that he is willing to listen to the nation’s pleas for him to make the sacrifice of being its next president.
This is a ritual as old as the republic. Webb’s false modesty about his all-consuming ambition is as familiar as it is transparent and it’s doubtful that most Democrats will buy into his conceit. But there is one particular Democrat who should be hoping that Webb once again hears the voice of Uncle Sam imploring him to serve: Hillary Clinton.
The 2016 Democratic presidential contest is shaping up to be a boring coronation of the former First Lady, but she’ll still have to fend off challenges from one or more Democrats who are not deterred by impossible odds. The only possible impact such a race would have on her chances in the general election would come from a contest in which she would be pushed from the left by a genuine populist who could tap into the liberal base’s resentment of Clinton’s establishment tendencies. If someone with the stature of an Elizabeth Warren were to take up the cause of pushing Hillary to the left in the primaries, it could force the frontrunner to take positions that could haunt her later on. A less credible figure like Brian Schweitzer might also take a run at Clinton from the left, but it’s doubtful the prospect of facing off against the former Montana governor frightens her in the least.
Nor would Webb give Clinton much of a scare. The former Reagan administration secretary of the navy is a one-of-a-kind politician. But his uniqueness doesn’t necessarily translate into political gold. Webb entered the political fray in 2006 as a man for a specific moment in our political history. His disorganized run for a Virginia Senate seat was predicated on his GOP credentials combined with his vehement opposition to the Iraq War. Though he didn’t seem much like one of them, Virginia Democrats embraced him for his anti-war fervor because of his Reaganite tendencies as much as in spite of them. Had George Allen not imploded with his “macaca” gaffe it’s doubtful Webb would have had a chance, but the Democratic midterm landslide that year garnered him a narrow victory. Once in office, Democrats found that he was more or less a party of one and were by no means disappointed that he declared himself unhappy with the Senate and didn’t run for reelection in 2012.
Is there a national constituency for Webb among Democrats? With 9/11 firmly in their rearview mirror, Democrats no longer see any need to embrace problematic figures because of their military credentials. Nor is there much of a constituency left in the party for those whose main claim to leadership stems from a reputation for toughness abroad. Indeed, Clinton’s own reputation as being slightly more aggressive on foreign policy than many members of her party is something of a liability among Democrats.
That’s why if she could handpick her primary opponent, I don’t think Clinton would choose anyone other than Webb. Facing off against him would make Clinton look better to the liberal base on many issues without the candidate having to adopt positions that might embarrass her in the fall. And unlike the case with a liberal Democratic challenger who is genuinely liked by the party base, there’s no need to worry about Webb’s challenged campaign style posing any real threat to win any primaries. While Webb may think he’s exactly what Democrats need, the party’s voters aren’t going to give him much of a chance. But if Clinton is going to have an opponent, it’s far better for her to have someone who sometimes sounds more like a Republican than a genuine Democrat. Though political professionals will, no doubt, advise Webb to keep talking about the presidency until he’s done selling books and then stay out of the race, Hillary is probably praying that she could entice him into a raise that would be a win-win proposition for the likely nominee.