It’s not a convincing argument that Trump picking a woman or a person of color will do much or anything to change how terrible he is doing with either women or people of color, but (Democrat?) Jim Webb does as much as any Republican could on both national security and political experience (which Trump resoundingly lacks) and does more to potentially bring in independents and conservative Democrats. That might not be a winning formula in today’s America, but Webb is still probably Trump’s best bet short of a Kasich (who has said he won’t be Trump’s VP) given that Trump is… Trump.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse May 31, 2016
HAIFA — Now that Trump is has apparently clinched the Republican nomination, a lot of ink and airtime is being given to speculation over who Trump will pick as his vice presidential running-mate. There are rumblings that Trump may pick Tennessee’s U.S. Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, among others who are currently garnering less buzz and speculation. Trump’s campaign manager recently suggested that Trump would avoid picking a candidate based on identity politics or trying to “pander” to women or minorities, and Trump seems to be wanting a candidate that will be able to provide his administration with experience and governance abilities, an old hand who will apparently act as a CEO or COO for Trump, who himself would be in a “Chairman of the Board”-type role.
Remember Jim Webb?
The thing about Webb is that he’s most recently been a Democrat. But he’s one that has publicly said he “would not vote for Hillary Clinton” while also saying that he would not rule out supporting Trump in the same interview, and I noted late last year that Webb would have clearly and widely been considered one of the most substantive candidates on a crowded stage if he had run as a Republican. But running in this cycle as a Democrat, his campaign was short-lived and never seemed to be able to get off the ground.
Still, Webb has an impressive resume. Firstly, he is a distinguished military man, having served bravely as a Marine officer in the Vietnam War in combat, where he won the Navy Cross (2nd highest honor one can earn in the Marines or Navy), the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts (that means he was wounded twice). He graduated from Georgetown Law School, worked on the staff for the House Veterans Affairs Committee, taught at the Naval Academy, and served as an assistant secretary of defense, then an assistant secretary of the Navy, for the Reagan Administration, resigning from the latter when he lost a battle he fought against cutting the size of the Navy. On top of all this, he is a prolific, ambitious, and serious writer: a screenwriter, non-fiction writer, and novelist (having written what many consider to be the best novel on the Vietnam War: Fields of Fire).
He was a Democrat as a young man, then, displeased with Jimmy Carter, became a Republican and supported Reagan in the 1980s, and voted for George W. Bush in 2000. He became increasingly frustrated with Republican policy with its irresponsible invasion of Iraq and its lack of attention to the plight of the poor as exemplified by the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. Whether the soldiers who were given a raw deal in Iraq or the poor refugees of Katrina, Jim Webb was always fighting for the poor underdogs in America.
The “Little Trump” Inside Webb
Of Scotch-Irish stock, he proudly identifies with that ethnic group, who settled Appalachia and have often remained the “redneck” white poor while also volunteering in large numbers to fight in America’s wars, like Webb himself. He hates the term “redneck” but loves the culture so-termed, and even in the midst of running in 2006 for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia as a newly-reborn Democrat in a tight race against popular incumbent Republican and then-rising GOP star Sen. George Allen, did not flinch in saying in an interview in 2006 that “Every movie needs a villain. Towel-heads and rednecks—of which I am one. If you write that word, please say that. I mean, I don’t use that pejoratively, I use it defensively. Towel-heads and rednecks became the easy villains in so many movies out there,” and, clarifying the next day, “I used the words that are used to stereotype them,” that he used them “defensively,” and that “I’m really upset if this is going to end up being the guppy that eats the whale here.”
Time to pause here: Webb is clearly no Trump, as he is a man of substance with a distinguished career of public service in a wide variety of offices, and someone who risked his life as a combat veteran, both a soldier and a scholar.
And yet, the “towel-head/redneck” quote shows that he has a significant overlap with Donald Trump, especially sharing a disdain for political correctness. As my Circassian-Jordanian friend Nart once wisely opined, “There’s a little Trump in everyone,” but some have more Trump in them than others. With Webb, he has the developed intellect and distinguished career of public service that Trump can only dream of, and, unlike Trump, Webb actually comes from the same background of many of America’s conservative working-class whites and has fought for them his whole career. Webb even came out lambasting “political correctness” in relational to the decision to remove President Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill and replace him with slave-turned-Underground Railroad-champion Harriet Tubman, downplaying Jackson’s much reviled decision to forcibly remove Native Americans en masse from the American Southeast on routes that would become known as the Trail of Tears, with Jackson even ignoring a Supreme Court ruling against his removal of the native tribes. While researching the Scotch-Irish, Webb came to fall in love with Jackson, a Scotch-Irish man who became American’s first winning presidential populist, and Trump’s candidacy has drawn apt comparisons to Jackson’s candidacy.
Webb the Whites Democrats Are Losing
It was not long after he discovered his strong affinity for Jackson and his style of politics while researching his book on the Scotch-Irish that Webb ran for Senate in 2006 as a Democrat and won, serving one-term from January 2007 to January 2013, then declining to run for reelection. He then ran for President as a Democrat, beginning his campaign in 2015 and participating in the first nationally televised Democratic Debate before dropping out shortly after that debate.
Webb’s big moment was that debate, but not in a good way for him. On one level, it was an embarrassment for him in that he constantly whinedabout not being given equal speaking time in an almost childish manner that seemed to consume much of the speaking time he was given. But the debate served to mainly show how out of step Webb was with the Democratic base and the Party as whole. In fact, Webb seemed to be speaking for Democratic Party that no longer existed, one that catered specifically to the white working-class and not built on support from young people and minorities, one that catered to the poor rural white population and not a brown population centered in urban areas. He bragged about killing his enemies in the Vietnam war, was far more pro-gun rights that the other candidates, and was uncomfortable with the whole “Black Lives Matter” movement, declining to say “black lives matter” in favor of saying that “As a president of the United States, every life in this country matters,” and then awkwardly added: “At the same time, I believe I can say to you, I have had a long history of working with the situation of African Americans.” Yet he was clearly annoyed at even being asked this question or that the issue was even being discussed. Race was clearly an issue he preferred not to discuss.
Such tactics appeal more to Republicans than Democrats these days, that’s for sure.
But let’s be fair to Jim Webb: he speaks to a certain kind of voter, not an insignificant portion of the electorate, who are white and not wealthy (many are poor), who live in parts of America where most of the people around them are also white and not wealthy, could be considered poor; they know that the Republican Party is not looking out for their economic interests, but they also feel that the Democratic Party is now the party of black and brown America, and not their standard bearer. For them, the discussion in the Democratic Party is about the problems of black and brown Americans, not their problems. They often don’t see that they share many of the same problems with minorities, and bristle at the constant attention given to African-Americans and others, also failing to see that the Democrats’ agenda is still largely one that is beneficial to them as poor whites even as it gives special attention to minorities like African-Americans and Latinos.
Webb, in insisting that all all lives matter, is speaking to these voters, letting them know both that he is ready to fight for them and not for minorities at their expense, not that he is not willing to fight for minorities, though, but, somewhat like Bernie Sanders, he wants to focus on the overall economic situation as a solution for both poor whites and poor blacks, not so much look at racism and the particular conditions of minorities as issues in their own right. This Webb-Sanders philosophy is a problematic and insufficient approach that would actually do little to address racial economic inequalityeven if all saw their lot improve, but is an approach that many whites who are not college-educated liberals, who erroneously believe they are more persecuted than other racial/ethnic groups, find appealing. In the past few election cycles, Democrats have done increasingly poorly with white voters, and Jim Webb might have reasonably thought that he could position himself as their last great hope in the Democratic Party.
But the voting and donating bases active during the Democratic Party’s nomination process are not people receptive to such messages, at least the way that Webb sold them, from right of the typical Democrat. Webb ran a primary campaign that might have been better for the general election, and his extremely low fundraising and polling numbers were a testament to his inability to be competitive in a Democratic primary contest in 2016. When he announced that he was dropping out of the Democratic race, he stated that “I fully accept that my views on many issues are not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party,” that they were “not comfortable with many of the policies [I] laid forth, and frankly I am not that comfortable with many of theirs,” and that “[t]he Democratic Party is heavily invested in interest-group politics.” When asked at this press conference if he would remain a Democrat, he was noncommittal.
Unlike candidates such as Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, who claim a majority mandate when they only receive a minority of support, Webb was brutally honest about where things stood and quickly accepted reality. Webb briefly tried to see if he could be the guy to bring the voters he had in mind back to a Democratic Party from which they are drifting away; when he was considering a run as a third-party independent, he was clearly considering his ability to energize this alienated constituency: if he was finding it hard to be a Democrat, they would be too and would be shopping for a new option.
Jim Webb Presidential Campaign
What Webb Could Do for Trump
Now that Webb has ruled out a third party bid, the question is as to whether Trump, or possibly even a breakaway rebellion by Sanders, could lure these voters that such candidates, including Webb, envision as a “silent majority” (they are likely off with such estimates in today’s increasingly diverse America). Having now already signaled something of a preference for Trump over Clinton, perhaps Webb would seriously consider being Trump’s running mate if he felt he could have a lot of influence over Trump, be given a lot of responsibility in a Trump Administration, and use this power and influence to really look out for his beloved “rednecks”—Scotch-Irish, the rural white poor of Appalachia and elsewhere, and others—in a way designed to lift them and everybody up, not overtly, specifically, and predominantly focusing on the plight of minorities and the urban poor, as is often the current modus operandi of today’s Democratic Party.
Conventional wisdom would say that Trump’s selection of Webb would be silly, because Trump already had the white working-class vote locked up. This line of thought paints Trump’s supporters as part of a working-class white rebellion against the Republican “Establishment” elite. The astute and reliable Nate Silver, though, has shown us that Trump’s supporters are actually significantly wealthier and better educated than most voters, including most white voters, and that Trump’s supposed dominance of the working-class is “mythology.” In fact, as Silver notes, particularly in primaries, and particularly in primaries on the Republican side, poorer voters tend to not participate as much as wealthier ones and are underrepresented as a share of the primary electorate:
Thus, looking at the data, we actually see that, in a close race, Trump selecting someone like Webb—who is truly one of the white working-class and has been their champion for some time, who has been independent-minded for some time and should have a unique ability to appeal to conservative Democrats and “true” independents who don’t consistently lean toward one or the other party, the latter with whom Trump is not polling well at all (only 16%(!) gave him a favorable rating)—may actually help Trump.
“But Trump is weak with women and minorities!” you say. Well, it’s hard to conceive of any woman or minority candidate who would say yes to Trump that would actually help him significantly with either group. And while I’ve written about Republicans’ dire need to expand their base to include people who aren’t white men, Trump will clearly not be the candidate to do it. So perhaps, at least in this election cycle, an Ann Coulter-ish Republican strategy based on turning out a significantly higher than usual percentage of white voters might not be as crazy as it sounds, as awful a strategy as that would be for the GOP in the long-term.
Trump’s main weaknesses as a candidate, apart from being kryptonite to voters of color and who have vaginas, are that he has no national security, political, or government experience; that he is not studious or intellectual in the least; that he has no gravitas and little substance, and often appears to be more of a cartoon character than a presidential candidate. Jim Webb shores up all of these weaknesses, save for Trump’s lack of appeal to non-whites and women. At the same time, Webb shares to a degree Trump’s lack of regard for political correctness in a way that would make their union seem believable and genuine. In addition, Webb as someone who has felt alienated and frustrated by the two-party system who has been a moderate in both parties—a liberal Republican and a conservative Democrat—can really help to possibly expand and even deepen Trump’s cross-party and independent-minded appeal, especially among many voters who are likewise frustrated by the two-party system. Picking Webb would show Trump’s potential to be bi-partisan and could reassure those nervous about Trump having the nuclear trigger. As Trump seems to be locking up the both the Republican base and “Establishment” while generating plenty of enthusiasm, it’s hard to imagine a Republican with solid national security credentials (like Sen. Corker) being able to offer more than Jim Webb does, who already has that sphere impressively covered and could make things interesting with independents and the ever-dwindling conservative Democrats. Apart from someone like Ohio Gov. and recently-exited GOP presidential candidate John Kasich (who has repeatedly ruled out being Trump’s VP) or another candidate who, like Kasich, could make a big difference in a major swing state and who I have failed to consider, at this point I can’t think of a specific person better than Jim Webb, should he be willing to accept, for Trump to ask to be his running mate.
Trump-Webb 2016: Trump’s Best Realistic Option?
I still believe looking at demographics that any Republican not appealing to minorities or women better than they their party has been recently will lose to a Democrat in a presidential race, but, with everything being what it is, with Trump being who he is and his campaign being what it is, I think Webb does as much as any Republican can for Trump in terms of offsetting his near-unprecedented lack of national security and political experience, potentially does more for Trump with independents and conservative Democrats than anyone else I can think of in either party who would actually consider running with him, and certainly does more with such voters than any woman or person of color who would actually run with him would do for bringing women or people of color over to Trump since his candidacy is so offensive to both groups.
No, I’m hardly saying “Webb or bust!” for Trump, but especially with Trump’s recent and very public disparaging of New Mexico’s popular Republican Latina governor, Susana Martinez, I’m having a tough time thinking of other realistic candidates who would realistically help Trump more. If people feel I’m overlooking someone, please feel free to note this in the comment section, but for now, I feel Jim Webb is a best bet for Trump (unless he could convince Kasich) even if Webb is something of a dark horse pick.
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