Jacksonian.

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Andrew Jackson Breakup Is Awkward for Jim Webb

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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The Democratic Party is breaking up with Andrew Jackson, citing irreconcilable differences over slave-owning and Indian removal. But not all Democrats are happy about it, and it leaves one long-shot presidential candidate, Jim Webb, in a particularly awkward position.

In states around the country, including Iowa, Democrats are renaming their time-honored Jefferson-Jackson dinners. True, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, too, but it’s Jackson who has really drawn the party’s ire. Democrats aren't pushing to remove Jefferson from the nickel (at least not yet), while many do want to replace Jackson’s visage on the $20 bill with a woman.

But Webb, the former senator from Virginia, has written and spoken reverently of Old Hickory. Webb called Jackson "in my view the most underrated American president," in an interview for his 2004 book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America." "I am at heart a Jacksonian," he said. 

He may be able to explain that to voters by citing Jackson’s populism -- his campaign declined to comment on whether his perspective has changed -- but his views on other presidents could present a bigger problem for his White House bid.

In “Born Fighting,” Webb lauds Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal for bringing jobs to the South, but he also writes: “Strong evidence supports the traditional conservative viewpoint that his domestic policies were focused too heavily on centralizing the power of the federal government and creating a quasi-socialist state.”

And here’s Webb on Abraham Lincoln, after the South fired on Fort Sumter in 1861: “When Lincoln called for an invasion of the South, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas left the Union.” Webb’s Lincoln is less an emancipator than an aggressor.

It's not just presidents. Time and again in his book, Webb reveals how out of step he is with today’s Democratic voters.

Webb’s conservative position on gun laws is well-known, but here he is on evolution: “This confrontation between religious and scientific theories is still unsettled even today, as creationists rationally argue that the living world could not have been fashioned without an ‘intelligent designer,’ and that the theory of evolution as presented by the Darwinists still rests on scientific speculation that has yet to be proven.” More than two of three Democrats believe in evolution.

On the civil rights era: “The reformers who worked to help end segregation failed to understand the vital historical distinctions among white cultures in the South, forcing a fight with a naturally populist people who might otherwise have worked with them, at least on some points, if they had taken a different approach.” If only the marchers had been more understanding! 

On affirmative action, Webb decries “the blatant, government-sponsored reverse discrimination inherent in what are now called diversity programs.” It will be interesting to hear him flesh out that argument to the party’s African-American voters.

For me, however, the most troubling part of Webb’s book was what he didn’t write.

Webb cites the writings of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, to argue that Southerners viewed secession primarily as a matter of states’ rights, not slavery. But he makes no mention of Stephens’s famous Cornerstone Address weeks before the start of the Civil War, in which Stephens explained that the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Webb devotes seven pages to William Wallace, Scotland’s Braveheart, but offers only one passing reference to Alabama’s George Wallace -- with no mention of his support for segregation. There are two mentions of “the unparalleled Nathan Bedford Forrest,” the Scots-Irish Confederate army leader, whose statue in Memphis has recently become the subject of debate. But there is no mention of Forrest’s role as a wealthy slave trader and an early Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Throughout the book, Webb simmers with resentment against the North and whitewashes the racial sins of the South. A chapter that covers the aftermath of the Civil War and the rise of Jim Crow is entitled, “The Mess the Yankees Made.” 

In June, after South Carolina’s Republican leaders announced their support for removing the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds, Webb released a mealy-mouthed statement saying that the flag “should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us.” He seemed unable to admit that the flag itself is -- whatever else it may represent -- a symbol of both national and racial division.

Scots-Irish Americans, and the South generally, have an enormous amount to be proud of -- and Webb has a distinguished record of public service. But his refusal to make any attempt at presenting a balanced portrait of what he correctly says is a complicated history calls into question his judgment.

Webb is right that the Democratic Party has done a poor job of speaking to Southern whites, and his presence in the race may lead the party to pay more attention to them. Nine southern states will hold their primaries by March 1, providing -- at least in theory -- an opening for Webb.

But Webb is far more conservative than the last Southern Democrat to win the White House, and far more enthralled with the old Confederacy. His view of history will make it difficult for him to present himself as the face of the party’s future.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net