Reflecting frustration, Webb Eyes Presidency

Reflecting frustration, Webb Eyes Presidency

By Salena Zito - November 23, 2014

In late November 2005, legendary Democrat strategist Steve Jarding sat down with Jim Webb — author, filmmaker, decorated Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Navy secretary — to discuss a possible run for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia against a wildly popular and well-funded incumbent, Republican George Allen.

“He wanted to know a percentage of his chances of winning,” Jarding recalled of that awkward moment when Jarding gingerly tried to postpone explaining the political reality.

“Damn it, Steve, give me a number,” Webb, frustrated by all the stalling, demanded.

Fifteen percent, Jarding reluctantly replied.

“I'll take that,” Webb said, not missing a beat. And he began his improbable quest.

Sometimes people wait for their rightful moment in history; other times, they seize the moment.

Last week, Webb seized the moment, announcing that he would run for president in 2016.

Webb has never followed any drumbeat but his own, an attribute that soured him on both political parties. Yet it fits perfectly with the populism that drove Democrats out of office earlier this month.

He uniquely reflects Main Street's frustration with Washington.

He pushed back on Republicans in 2006, when dissatisfaction with George Bush's handling of the Iraq war led him to run and win — as a Democrat — that Senate seat in Virginia. By 2010 he was as dissatisfied as the rest of the country with Barack Obama's presidency and the Democratic Party, and he quickly decided after that year's wave election that he would not seek re-election to the Senate.

In short, his disconnect with Washington mirrors yours.

“If he runs, it is probably because he thinks he is going to win,” said Jarding, who served as Webb's senior adviser during the 2006 Senate race. “He is not a Don Quixote chasing windmills. Odds don't bother him. I think that is what makes him a more interesting candidate.

“This is someone who believes passionately in what he believes. He is not tied to a talking-point message — he is authentic, competent, a fighter and, if ever there was somebody who will put a mirror to their soul and ask if this is the right thing to do, it is him.”

America is in the midst of a growing populist movement that crosses parties and has yet to be identified by name or brand.

Other populist movements, such as the Netroots in 2004-06 or the tea party in 2009-10, were hijacked by opportunists seeking to make a buck and to achieve fame off people's sentiments (or by the media, which categorized those movements as extreme in order to drive clicks and viewers). As a result, true believers on both sides were turned off to their movement's original core values.

Webb possesses something that Washington has failed to provide for years at all levels of government: an aura of leadership.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe our political and economic systems are barriers working against them. That alienation crosses all parties, races, ages and professions; whites, blacks, Hispanics, millennials, boomers, white- and blue-collar, high-tech and poor, all are fed up.

That is not a poll that helps establishment Washington. But it is one in which Webb could shine.

Webb resigned as Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary in 1988 when he disagreed with budget cuts. He has criticized both parties, most recently Democrats; in his announcement, he did not indicate which party's nomination he will seek.

He brings a unique life experience to the race — and, if he runs as a Democrat, he gets an early jump as the anti-Hillary candidate, according to Democrat strategist Dane Strother: “As that candidate he will get more traction than most believe. He even might be able to catch lightning in a bottle.”

Either way, Jarding believes a Webb campaign would be good for American politics, because experts may look at it and say, “Well, there's no path to victory” — but voters are likely to react to it with interest, not with dismissal.

“That dialogue is exactly what American politics is longing for and, with that, I don't underestimate his capacity for success,” said Jarding.

“I think the climate is so ripe for a truth-teller, and Webb will give you the honest medicine.”

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at
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Salena Zito

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