Thursday, February 10, 2011

Goodbye Jimmy, we hardly knew ye

Senator Jim Webb announced Wednesday that he won't seek a second term in 2012.

The announcement wasn't much of a surprise. He only raised $12,000 in campaign contributions in the fourth quarter of 2010 and he'd seemed for months to be vacillating on the decision to run or not run.

I'm going to miss him.

I always like Webb because he never quite fit the mold of your typical modern politician.

Unlike the guy he beat in 2006, George Allen, or his Democratic colleague from Virginia, Mark Warner, Webb was never the glib, smiling, backslapping type who generally prospers in retail politics.

Webb has the hard eyes of a former Marine combat veteran, a face like a clenched fist and the temper that so often accompanies the red hair he inherited from the Scot-Irish ancestors he's so proud of.

(I'm married to a redhead. Trust me on this.)

He's not himself a fool and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

And, unlike most of our current crop of political "leaders," Webb has never found it necessary to check which way the political winds are blowing before deciding what he thinks about an issue. Once he decides, he's not shy about saying just what he thinks.

He's as blunt as a hammer.

A former Republican, Webb managed to tick off members of both parties on an equal opportunity basis.

But, despite that, he managed to put up a pretty solid record of accomplishment for a first-term senator.

He was the primary author of a new G.I. Bill that was a more significant legislative accomplishment than Allen managed in six years in the seat or that Democrat Chuck Robb saw in the 12 years before that.

Webb's political views were more complex than party labels can encompass.

Economically, Webb was a populist, understanding that over the last 30 years this country has undergone a great redistribution of wealth from the bottom up, and that the top 20% of American earners were doing well at the expense of the bottom 80%. He worried about the disappearance of the middle class.

Webb was a warrior who campaigned against what he thought of as foolish war in Iraq.

He also came out for prison reform, hardly a  politically popular cause, noting the disconnect between the cradle of liberty having one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world.

He upset Democrats by calling for a re-thinking of affirmative action programs, which he believed had outlived their usefulness and grown to favor groups who'd never experienced systematic discrimination. He suggested that class, rather than race or ethnic background, might be a more suitable basis for such programs.

Webb seemed to enjoy being a U.S. Senator more than he enjoyed running for office. I suspect that it was the prospect of another campaign that led him to bow out of private life. Running for office in the United States is essentially a phony endeavor. And, whatever else was said about Jim Webb, no one ever accused him of being a phony.

His withdrawal from the arena will likely have a huge effect, not only on the Democratic race to succeed him, but the contest for the Republican nomination as well.

No one benefits from Webb's announcement more than Allen.

Allen was facing a tough road to the GOP nomination. Tea Party activist Jamie Radke has already announced her candidacy.  Other candidates somehow seen to be to the right of Allen were - including Prince William Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart and conservative gadfly Del. Bob Marshall - were expected to jump into the race.

But Webb's announcement, creating an open seat, has likely made Virginia Republicans less likely to gamble in 2012. They are more likely to go with the safe choice, which on the basis of name recognition and proven fundraising ability alone, is obviously Allen.

And, to be fair, some of the Tea Party objections to Allen seem illogical. He's apparently being blamed for going along with George W. Bush's bloated budgets and spending sprees. On that logic, the Tea Party should be opposing   nearly every Republican who served in Congress under Bush. With the exception of Rep. Ron Paul, none of them were notable for their objections to the Bush agenda.

Some Republicans see Allen as "damaged goods." They are on safer ground in opposing him.

While everyone remembers the "macaca" incident, where Allen directed an obscure racial slur at a "tracker" employed by the Webb campaign, that's not the whole story.  In the wake of that incident a flood of stories came out about Allen's love for the Confederate flag (even though he hails from California), the noose that used to hang in his a law office and his proclivity for using the "n word."

That's the candidate you want on the ballot in a year when Barack Obama is running for re-election in a state which the U.S. Census shows has an increasingly diverse population?

Nonetheless, I think Webb's announcement moved the odds against anyone snatching the GOP nomination away from Allen to from long to staggering.

Anyone who tries, and anyone who chooses to run against him in the general election, should be prepared for a tough nasty fight. Allen and his "A Team" always play hardball. They play it dirty and they play it well. Ask Mary Sue Terry or Chuck Robb.

George Allen is, and always has been, a bully. That's what "macaca" was all about really, he was trying to intimidate that kid and make him feel scared in front of a group of Allen supporters. By the way, you don't need to take my word for this, you can read his sister's book.

That made it somehow fitting that Jim Webb, the guy all bullies eventually run into who can't be intimidated, ended his political career which close Allen aides were once convinced would end in the Oval Office.

On the Democratic side, the natural first though once Webb dropped out, was former governor and current Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine.

Temperamentally, Kaine is a better fit for the Senate than Webb or Allen ... or Warner, for that matter. There's some question if he's interested.

A poll taken in November, once people began to speculate that Webb wasn't going to run, showed Kaine with leading Allen, 50-44, a better performance than Webb. That doesn't mean much. Terry once led Allen by 35 points in their gubernatorial race only to be swamped.

If Allen is the Republican's "safe" choice, Kaine is the Democrat's.

Former 5th District Rep. Tom Perriello seems to be the choice of the party's progressive wing. Going from ousted freshman congressman to U.S. Senator seems like a reach. But many of the same people who "drafted" Webb in 2006 are boosting Perriello.

Other names raised on the Democratic side are former gubernatorial contender Terry McAuliffe, former 9th District Rep. Rick Boucher, 3rd District Rep. Bobby Scott and State Senator Donald McEachin, who lost in an attorney general bid in 2001.

McAuliffe would likely face the same "carpetbagger" issues he did in 2009, although he could probably raise more money than even Allen. After the Creigh Deeds fiasco in 2009, I don't see state Democrats being willing to give another conservative Democrat from the western end of the state, like Boucher, a change on the statewide ticket any time soon. Scott would likely be a formidable opponent, if he were willing to give up a safe-for-life House seat and gamble for the Senate.

I worked as McEachin's press secretary when he ran in 2001. His dream has never been to be in the U.S. Senate. It's to some day be governor of Virginia. He is in better position to run statewide now than he was in 2001.

Any of the Democrats mentioned so far, could beat Allen. But it's going to be a tougher fight than it would have been in Webb had chosen to run again.

Cross posted at All Politics Are Local.

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