What Ever Happened to Jim Webb?

The populist Democrat and his barely-visible campaign


By the time I get to Phoenix, I'll be at 5 percent.

Remember Jim Webb? Former senator, Vietnam vet, war novelist, sort of a maverick. Was mulling a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. And then he kind of disappeared.

Oh, he didn't vanish entirely. Last month BuzzFeed spotted him at the annual Scottish Games in South Carolina, where he gave the haggis-and-kilt crowd what was "arguably the briefest stump speech in presidential history—a six-minute-and-five-seconds contemplation of the role of the Scotch-Irish in American history." Last week he published a piece of fiction in Politico called "To Kill a Man," which may be a first in presidential politics. And after the other Democratic candidates reacted to the Charleston church massacre with full-throated condemnations of the Confederate battle flag, Webb released a more subdued statement asking us to "remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War."

(A quick aside about that. On what is widely, and I think rightly, seen as the central civil rights fight of the day—the constellation of issues around intrusive policing and mass incarceration—Webb has by far the best record of the possible Democratic candidates. As a senator he pushed for criminal justice reform long before it was a trendy topic, and he has said it will be a big part of his presidential campaign if he runs. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has an unimpressive history in this area, and while her rhetoric on the subject has recently shifted for the better, even now her proposals are pretty weak. And Martin O'Malley's record on these issues is even worse than Clinton's. But Clinton and O'Malley condemned the flag, and Webb didn't. How you judge those combinations of views will say a lot about the relative weight you give to symbols and substance.)

Beyond those brief moments of media attention, Webb has been making stops around Iowa while mostly staying out of the national limelight. A number of people expected him to step out of the shadows and declare his candidacy last Friday, but Fox is reporting that the plan fell apart:

Webb was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Clinton County Democratic Hall Of Fame dinner in Clinton, Iowa. While the timing was bad (Friday night, where news goes to die), insiders said Webb thought it would be a good place to drop the hammer on a presidential run.

Enter the Clinton campaign, which Webb confidantes grumble has been sandbagging them at every turn. They convinced the Clinton County Democratic Party to add Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to the speakers roster. The intention was for her to give a spirited sales pitch for Hillary at the very same place and time Webb would launch his campaign.

For Webb, insiders say, that, plus the fact that a Friday night launch could have gotten lost in the news cycle, was enough to convince him to delay the announcement.

Until when, only Webb knows.

If Webb does run, it's not clear what role he'll play in the race. The conventional wisdom is that he would try to chip away at Clinton from the right while Bernie Sanders goes after her from the left. But Webb and Sanders might actually have more in common with each other than either has with the frontrunner. Webb bashes plutocrats just as surely as the socialist does, and he is arguably more anti-war; they also have similar views on criminal justice reform, and Sanders tends to share Webb's support for gun rights. The most significant split among the Democratic challengers might not be the line separating left from right, but the one dividing the populists—Webb and Sanders—from the more establishment-oriented candidates, Clinton and O'Malley.

Don't ask me where Lincoln Chafee fits in.