Jim Webb and the Lost History of the Pre-Obama Left

The “centrist” critic of Hillary Clinton is not centrist at all.

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US Senator and Chairman of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee Jim Webb answers a question during his press conference on North Korea and East Asia and Pacific affairs issues at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo on April 5, 2012.

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

In post-election stories about Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign—and its discontents—one-term Virginia Senator Jim Webb is sometimes described as a challenger from Clinton's right. The latest example comes from Maggie Haberman and Hadas Gold's sharp story about the left-wing media's approach to Clinton: "Even Webb, who was Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary and claims to have told President Barack Obama that health care reform would be a 'disaster,' has gotten some love on the left."

But Webb isn't exactly a figure of the right, or even the center-left. In 2006, when he was writing books and columns critical of the Iraq War, Webb was drafted into Virginia's U.S. Senate race by progressives. Virginia's blue blogs (like the defunct Raising Kaine) and the progressive hub Daily Kos were hotbeds of pro-Webb sentiment. As Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas wrote in 2013, community members "raised millions of dollars and generated on-the-ground activism" for Webb and other candidates who were not traditionally left-wing.

Has anything changed? "Webb was the best we could do in a state like Virginia in 2006," wrote Moulitsas in an e-mail. "He was the epitome of Netroots ideological pragmatism. That same pragmatism tells us that we could do far better than Webb today pretty much anywhere outside the Deep South or Idaho, and he certainly isn't someone who could credibly run to Hillary's LEFT. So his flirtations are pretty much a joke."

Fair enough. But Webb's criticisms of the Obama-era Democrats are not particularly right-wing. His anger over the Affordable Care Act started with the process, in which "five different congressional committees voted out their version of health-care reform, and so you had 7,000 pages of contradictory information." Few progressives disagree with that. Webb never took back his vote for the law, or for the idea of universal health care. When he called it a "disaster," he was describing the process that created a law that's heading toward its second Supreme Court challenge. His beef with the Democratic Party was not that it moved left per se, but that it "evolved too strongly into interest groups rather than representing working people, including small business people."

There's no soft-pedaling that criticism. The new Democratic Party expects to win the 2016 election by, for the thirteenth consecutive time, losing the white vote but racking up huge wins with minorities. (The national "white vote" is skewed by the Democrats' abysmal numbers with white voters in the South.) Most Democrats now believe that Hillary Clinton can bend the map enough to win. Webb is a specter from a recent Democratic past when activists hoped that the party could do much more—without abandoning any "left" principles.

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