RCP Interview With Jim Webb

RCP Interview With Jim Webb

By Kyle Trygstad - February 13, 2009

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) recently sat down with us to discuss a range of issues. Prior to being elected to the Senate in 2006, Webb served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and is a best selling author and a decorated Vietnam veteran.

RCP: We're three weeks into President Obama's administration after a historical election. In a 2004 Wall Street Journal piece you wrote: "The greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African Americans to the same table, and so to redefine a formula that has consciously set them apart for the past two centuries."

Is that what happened in 2008?

Webb: I don't think that's quite what happened. No... [laughs]

But I think it has the potential to happen. People need to get a comfort level with what this administration is doing. There's certainly a commonality of interests in those two groups -- or more loosely defined, African Americans who still haven't made their way into the mainstream and a lot of rural, working class whites who are out of the mainstream. And I think they do have a commonality of interests. When we look at issues, particularly economic fairness and social justice issues, there's a definite intersection where there is opportunities for working people or looking at the prison system or who carries the load in our wars.

RCP: You were one of about 15 or 20 moderate senators heavily involved in crafting a compromise stimulus plan without which the Senate would not have been able to pass the bill. If you could, take us inside the deliberations. Were these heated meetings? Did at any point you think to yourself, 'I don't think we're going to be able to come to a compromise?'

Webb: Well, what happens in those meetings need to stay private, that's why we ask staff to leave. The clicking Blackberries in the background disappear when we ask staff to leave. But I think that the group of people who worked on this were people who believed there should be a strong stimulus package, as opposed to most Republicans, but also wanted to see it focused in a way that we could justify the programs. In the weekend before we actually started meeting, I gave very specific directions to my staff as they looked through the legislation; the same types of directions we used to develop parameters on the TARP. When you get these really massive programs, if you don't follow some guiding precepts you can get lost in the programs.

In this case, what I said to the people on my staff who were working on this is: These have to be existing programs, rather than new authorization; authorized infrastructure programs (that's point number two, there are programs that aren't infrastructure programs) and the infrastructure programs, already authorized programs, where the funding hasn't come, so when you put the funding in you kick start the program rather than having to go through the process of creating it; or money that goes directly into the hands of people that need it.

So we had gone through this whole proposal before we even sat down, and we had about a hundred billion [dollars] in questionable programs. Not that a lot of them weren't good programs, but that they weren't stimulus programs -- things that actually get in and kick start the economy. So we walked into these meetings with precepts having been drawn and with programs that could be questioned because of the precepts rather than politics. We followed that, and I followed that in private meetings all the way through. We did it again -- we did it more than once during the process. In as much as you can have a program of this magnitude put together by this many people -- I think we have something that we can say with validity to the American people: 'We've tightened it as much as we can. We've made it relevant.' If you accept the premise that we need a stimulus, this is a good one.

RCP: Speaking of politics, the President seemed to indicate -- at least the other night in his press conference -- that Republicans might not have gone into this process in good faith. Is that what you experienced in your talks?

Webb: I'm not sure I would say good faith. I think the Republicans -- many Republicans -- decided that this is going to be the defining political issue for the next two and four years. And I say that as someone, as you know, who works across the aisle every chance I get. We would never have had a G.I. Bill if we hadn't really reached across the aisle, for instance. But I think this was a definitely political calculation by the Republican Party -- that this is an issue that will define them over the next couple years. And the reality is that it's going to be very difficult to link economic success with a program like this because of the way that it's being presented, the renewed bureaucracy, and all these other things they're throwing out there. But it would be very easy to take potshots at specific failures. So I think that's all a part of their strategy.

We saw here in Virginia on Monday the traditional meeting with the governor and the whole congressional delegation. Every year this happens. And every single Republicans decided not to come and not to let their staff come. It's almost unheard of. The point that I've been making over the past several days is: You can take whatever substantive you want, that's why we're here; but we really need to focus on governing right now; we've got a country that's in a crisis right now.

RCP: Many Republicans pointed to the failed 1990s Japanese stimulus in their argument against the Democrats. As the only U.S. Senator to have written a novel set in Japan, the only one to have lived and taught there, you're uniquely suited to comment on the Japanese analogy. So why do you think the Japanese stimulus failed, and why do you think this stimulus will work?

Webb: It's very interesting because actually in September as we were debating what the TARP package was going to look like, I had dinner with the Japanese ambassador. We had a long discussion about Japan's lost decade and their bubble burst, and his strongest piece of advice was you have to get money into the system fast. That the greatest mistake that was made in Japan was that they were too cautious putting money into the system. That it was done in increments, so that it actually ended up prolonging their problems.

I took that into account. I was very skeptical about the TARP. And I think that the points that we waged on the TARP -- some of them came home afterward because we gave so much discretion to one individual -- the Secretary of the Treasury -- who turned around and used the money in a way that wasn't the way that he said he was going to use it. We would be much better off today, I think, if he had used the money the way he said that he would -- unclogged the banking system, take these assets out of the banking system so that they could achieve their eventual value. And I think they would and they will.

But the point that you raise -- I think the Japanese would probably have a pretty strong majority supporting the idea of putting a lot of money in up front, get this thing going.

RCP: The other day on the Senate floor I noticed Senator Claire McCaskill carrying a copy of Born Fighting with her. The two of you worked together to form the Commission on Wartime Contracting last week. The Truman Commission, which it was designed after, saved about $178 billion, adjusted for inflation.

How much do you think this new commission could possibly save the government?

Webb: We don't know. The difficulty with our commission right now is in order to get it through the Congress, we had to make two adjustments. One was the makeup of it is four-four, Republicans and Democrats. The other is we don't have subpoena power. The first difficulty with the four-to-four balance depends on the good will of the people who have been appointed. If they work together -- and I'm hoping that they will -- then we can get some serious accountability retrospectively, looking back on what happened.

As to the subpoena power, I said -- I gave my presentation to them -- that if they believe they do not have the sufficient power to really bring accountability, to report to us. And we now have a situation, I think, in the Congress where we can add something on the subpoena power and perhaps extend the life of this for another year or so. It needs to be sunset-ed, but it took quite a bit of time for it to get up and running. I will say this, I think that the majority of the people on that commission are fairly energized to do something and that's a good sign.

RCP: Southeast Asia. You're the newly appointed chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. You recently returned from a trip to the region. You've also fought in the region, written books set there, and you speak fluent Vietnamese. What are the biggest challenges facing the U.S. in that region and how do we deal with them?

Webb: I've spent a lot of time in the region, as you know, and the biggest challenge we have as a nation right now is to make sure we pay attention to that part of the world. We tend to focus mostly on what's going on with the Chinese. Sometimes we talk about Japan, North Korea. But we rarely focus on the region in a way that gives it its full measure of attention given its importance to our country. First of all, there is an evolution in Southeast Asia toward foliating through ASEAN and addressing problems in the region or through the community nations that are there. We need to be more actively involved in encouraging and working with the ASEAN environment.

The most immediate, specific threat that we have right now is sorting out the impact of this world economic crisis. Each one of the countries that I was in has already been impacted by the downturn in world economy. Singapore really exists economically by its relationship to world trade -- import and export. They have the largest container shipping port in the world. They're right on the Strait of Malaka. When exports or imports decline, Singapore starts having problems. One thing I heard in Vietnam over and over again -- Vietnam is sort of at the tail end of the world economy -- and when retail businesses start drying up the employment situation in South Vietnam shrinks. A little bit of the same with Thailand. Thailand has political difficulties right now, but I have a real trust in the Thai people. They've been around, been doing this for a long time.

We just saw today some numbers from China. They had a traumatic downturn in imports and exports from a year ago -- comparing January to January. There's some question about how that data will continue because the Chinese New Year -- or Tet in Vietnam -- the week that it occurs you have a dramatic slowdown in the country. And it occurred early this year, and some of the Chinese are saying, well this is a reflection of the lunar new year, etc.

All the countries in that region are all vulnerable to the world economy here, and it affects -- this is important to point out -- it affects each of them differently in terms of their political situation and their relationship with the United States. So that's the number one thing that we have to look at, and they are all looking at us to resolve the stimulus package to see where they are going to go.

RCP: Switching regions of the world to the Middle East, Afghanistan specifically. Can you talk about the risks of sending additional troops into a landlocked nation?

Webb: Well, point number one, we need to have a clearly articulated strategy. I believe this administration is committed to doing that, with the special emissary and everything else. But a clearly articulated strategy will help us clarify what it is that we really want these people to do and when we will know that it's over. That will focus what we're supposed to be doing in the country. On the one hand you have terrorism. On the other hand you have a huge drug problem -- many would say a narco-state. On another we have people who believe that we could move Afghanistan toward a Democratic system. On another we have this odd situation with Iran -- where if you go on the other side of Iran, we're saying Iran is the greatest destabilizing effect on Iraq, and then we get to Afghanistan and we're talking about putting NATO supply lines through Iran. So we need a clearly articulated strategy.

And then, if we are going to increase, which is basically your question, the most vulnerable part of our operational policy is the supply lines. I mentioned this to Secretary Gates in September when he testified, when we were first seeing the interruption of these convoys in Pakistan. About 80 percent of the logistical supplies that go into Afghanistan go through Pakistan, and we don't operate militarily in Pakistan, obviously. So I've heard estimates as high as 50 percent of the convoys that go through Pakistan have had problems and had stuff taken from them. So the more people you have in Afghanistan, the more strategically vulnerable you are to supply lines that are either going to through Pakistan, Iran or the northern Stans, which basically are under the influence of Russia. It's a very odd situation to be in.

RCP: I'm hoping I can get you to speak about the Virginia Governor race this year. I covered your 2006 primary race with Harris Miller pretty closely. He seemed to pull in a ton of support from local and state politicians, while national Democrats were coming to back you because they felt you had the best chance of knocking out George Allen. What parallels, if any, do you see with the current primary race and yours.

Webb: I don't see any. I seriously mean that. I think that the differences are much greater than the similarities, if you go back. The only real similarities I see are that Terry McAuliffe and I -- neither of us have ever run for office before and we were not insiders in the state Democratic Party. But just about everything else is different. I got a lot of support inside the state; a tremendous volunteer base from the beginning. I had no money. And Terry McAuliffe is known as a profligate fundraiser. So I think our situations actually were a little reversed when you get beyond the basic similarity.

I got out in a 10-year-old Jeep, put 36-, 37,000 miles on this old Jeep with my radio operator from Vietnam as my driver. We hit three town hall meetings a night. And I don't think we spent $100,000 in the whole primary. We didn't have one ad -- radio or TV. Not one. It was all word of mouth. Harris Miller had more than a million dollars and ran ads and did a lot of other things. So I don't think there's much of a parallel.

I don't know how this is going to come out. I have no idea how it's going to come out. I do know that Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds have been running hard for two years. It's going to be very interesting to see.

RCP: Now that Senator John Warner has retired, you're the only former Secretary of the Navy. There was a report recently that our Navy fleet is dwindling from 600 twenty years ago down to 200 in the next ten years. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, what can you do or what you have done to ensure we have the best Navy fleet possible?

Webb: I think we're at 282. When I was commissioned in 1968, we had 930 ships in the United States Navy. It went down to 479 in 1979 after Vietnam. And then we had it up to -- I think I had it up to around 580, 586. When I resigned as Secretary of the Navy I made a statement -- it was over a budget issue with cutting the Navy back -- I made a statement: 'I did not choose to become the father of the 350 ship Navy.' Little did I know, it got down to the 270s. It's now 282.

I've been around the entire United States military all my life. So I have just as strong feelings about the Air Force -- I grew up in the Air Force -- the Army, I was a ground guy in the Marine Corps, served in the Marine Corps, etc. This isn't just a Navy issue. But since you asked, it is a Navy issue.

I think the Navy has huge challenges right now. They got leadership challenges. They came in $4.6 billion in unfunded requirements. They're trying to get it up to 313 ships. Their air procurement programs are in disarray. They had ship building programs in disarray, cancelled. They really need a stronger focus, and they need to be rebuilding their structure and those sorts of things. So we've been back and forth on this. They need to really get a much stronger focus on where to use their money.

Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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