Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Jim Webb Factor

Jacob Heilbrunn has a piece in The New York Times that suggests the biggest threat to Hillary Clinton getting the Democratic nomination in 2016 won't come from Elizabeth Warren, but from Jim Webb. The former Virginia senator and Vietnam War hero has been one of the loudest critics of America's foreign policy in the Middle East. His opposition to the Iraq War is eerily similar to that of another outspoken critic of the War, Barack Obama, who upended what many thought was going to be a Clinton coronation.

While she [Clinton] can pretty much split the difference with any primary opponents on economic policy, the divisions over foreign affairs could be a lot harder to paper over for Mrs. Clinton, who has been tacking to the right on Iran, Syria and Russia in anticipation of Republican assaults during the general election.

Though Heilbrunn correctly points out that Webb is still a "very long shot," it should be noted that at this point in the '08 campaign, a lot of pundits were saying the same thing about Obama. Don't tell me lightning can't strike twice in the same place. The push by some for a Webb candidacy is based on the premise that if he wins the nomination, he could lure some white southerners away from the GOP and back towards the Democratic Party.

Allow me to throw some cold water on that premise. While it is true that southern whites have, for the most part, abandoned the Democratic Party, that isn't necessarily a stumbling block to holding onto the White House. Michael Tomasky wrote a piece in the Daily Beast speaking to this very issue. His point? With the exception of Florida, Democrats don't need a single southern state to win a presidential election. He's right. In both 2008 and 2012, Obama won without carrying a single state in the deep South. The GOP took every state from Texas to South Carolina and got trounced both times.

If there's one lesson that Democrats should take away from the 2014 midterms, it is that the day of the Blue Dog or centrist Democrat may be coming to an end. With the defeats of both Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor this past November, the transformation that began in the mid-1960s after the signing of the Civil Rights Act is now complete. Republicans now own the South and will for quite some time. When Lyndon Johnson said the South was lost for a generation, few knew it would prove to be the understatement of the century.

That Democrats should want to take back some of the ground they ceded over the last fifty years is laudable but ultimately academic. Jim Webb isn't going to be their great white hope in Dixie no matter what he says or does. In fact, far from being a deliverer, his nomination, should he get it, might well prove to be far more costly for the Party than it realizes.

Here's why. When you look at the the Democratic base, white men represent, by far, its smallest percentage. Women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians comprise the overwhelming majority of it. All four of those demographic groups as a percentage of the electorate are growing. By comparison, white men as a percentage of the electorate are shrinking. How important is this? Consider that in 2012, Obama lost the white vote by 20 points, yet still beat Mitt Romney by more than five million votes.

The Obama coalition, as it has come to be known, consists primarily of the fastest growing voter groups in the country. From a purely business model perspective, Democrats are increasing their market share of the vote, while Republicans, who continue to pander mainly to white men, are seeing their market share of the vote dwindle. A decade ago, maybe two, Jim Webb might've made a pretty good Democratic candidate; hell, thirty years ago, he would've made a pretty damn good Republican one. Today, what he represents is mainly the past. Most of the base of the current Democratic Party will not connect with him and, worse, some could be turned off by him. Despite his dovish foreign policy bonafides, which could resonate with a few on the far Left, he doesn't bring a single thing to the table that another more viable candidate couldn't bring in droves. He's not Hillary Clinton, he's Bill Clinton. And while Bill is still very popular, the Party has since moved on. It belongs now to the Warrens, the Sanders and the Castro brothers.

If Hillary Clinton does indeed run, and if she ends up winning the nomination, she would do well to move not to her center, which is her basic instinct, but to her left. Jim Webb will appeal to those who wish for a return to a time that, for the most part, was more imaginary than real; who still insist that sucking up to people who already have a predisposition to vote against them is the key to success at the polls. Ask Kay Hagen how that worked out.

No, the next Democratic nominee must resist the urge to retreat backwards into the past and instead have the courage to look forward into the future. We already have one party in this country trapped in a time warp. No sense in having two.

1 comment:

Grung_e_Gene said...

Well, the Demographic Destiny argument is overrated imo. Personally, I'd like Bernie Sanders to win the Nom. No one currently in consideration will push for the Working Class or avoid foreign entanglements like Bernie.

Webb is a good candidate though, because the Democratic Party has been hemorrhaging the white working class, both men and women, for the last 14 years.

Populism is the way to go. And it's either going to be the Faux Populism of the Right or the real populism of the Progressive Era.