POLITICS

Jim Webb Losing His Early Allies With His Quixotic Presidential Bid

"I don't know where he's coming from, I don't know where he's going."

Back in 2005, Jim Webb -- the former Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan -- was urged to take part in a new mission: enter the Virginia Senate race, dispatch the Democratic Party's bland establishment hopeful Harris Miller, and ride on to vanquish incumbent Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). At the back of this play was a coterie of progressive Virginia activists and bloggers who rolled out the first "Draft James Webb" website and offered fulsome encouragement from perches like the state's widely read Raising Kaine blog.

You know how this story ended. With a lot of work -- and, let's face it, a little luck in the form of a video of Allen enunciating his own career epitaph by saying "macaca" -- Webb prevailed and joined the Senate in the autumn of the Democratic Congressional takeover. Webb would serve one term before making way for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Now, nearly 10 years after Webb was drafted to embark on his political career, the former senator has set his sights on a larger prize -- the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But some of the people who helped pave the way for Webb's electoral career won't be joining up for his presidential campaign.

"I don't support it in any way, shape, or form," says Lowell Feld, a Democratic political activist who maintains a kinetic presence on Blue Virginia, one of the state's most popular blogs for progressive politics. As recently as 2013, Feld was describing his work with the "Draft Webb" movement as the thing that made 2006 the best year of his career. As he put it, it was "undoubtedly the most wild, crazy, exhilarating, fun year I've ever had in politics." A year and a half on, whatever exhilaration he once felt working with Webb has fully diminished.

Feld's disaffection with Webb begins with a concise set of issues: "My focus is heavily on climate and clean energy," Feld says. "Webb just mostly doesn't talk about it. When he does, it's not in a compelling way. And I'm surprised he's not open to discussing it. To me, it's not an 'issue,' it's something that's game over for humanity."

But as Feld discusses Webb's recent campaign, his dissatisfaction over Webb's environmental stances -- or lack thereof -- inevitably leads to the discussion of an even deeper inconsistency with Webb as a presidential candidate: Webb's pointed break with the Democratic party at a time when the party's economic policies are seemingly swinging into greater alignment with the ones Webb articulated during his Senate run.

"One of the first things he said to me when I met him," says Feld, "was when I asked him why he had become a Democrat, he told me that the GOP had gone off the deep end, and that the Democrats were the only party with a set of viable economic policies. Now he's saying that the Democrats have gone too far to the left. In what way? This economic populism -- this is stuff you've been talking about."

Feld offers a wry chuckle, "Hey, correct me if I'm wrong here, but to run for president as a Democrat, you have to first win a Democratic nomination, right? Don't know how you get there insulting Democratic voters." (According to HuffPost Pollster's latest polling average, Webb is polling at 1.4 percent -- 57 points behind Hillary Clinton and 16 points behind Bernie Sanders.)

Lee Diamond, another veteran of the "Draft Webb" movement, echoes Feld's sentiments -- from his unhappiness with Webb's stated stances on the environment and energy ("I've prodded him on global warming, he hasn't taken it up"), to a confusion with Webb's seeming reluctance to embrace a party that has, if anything, moved in his direction on economic matters. "There is a consistency between [Elizabeth] Warren and Sanders and Webb, but he's keeping it vague," Diamond tells me. "But I don't know where he wants to go."

"Look, Jim is not a fan of class warfare," Diamond says, "I get that. I'm not either. But it's reality: Class warfare is being waged against the American people."

There was a time when Webb seemed perfectly capable of making his stance on the working class and their economic straits a lot more explicit. Take, for example, this passage from his 2004 book, Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America:

The ever-hungry industrialists have discovered that West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia sat atop one huge vein of coal. And so the rape began. The people from the outside showed up with complicated contracts that the small-scale cattle raisers and tobacco farmers could not fully understand, asking for "rights" to mineral deposits they could not see, and soon they were treated to a sundering of their own earth as the mining companies ripped apart their way of life, so that after a time the only option was to go down into the hole and bring the Man his coal, or starve. The Man got his coal, and the profits it brought when he shipped it out. They got their wages, black lung, and the desecration of their land. ... Coal made this part of Appalachia a poverty-stricken basket case while the rest of the mountain region remained mired in isolation.

 

All this talk of "raping" and "sundering the earth" so that "The Man" (capital T, capital M!) might cart off profits, leaving Appalachia "desecrated" suggests that at one point, Webb at least was more florid in his class-war condemnations than either Warren or Sanders, if not bolder.

And there are certainly those who were with Webb when he launched his 2006 Senate run who remain convinced he hasn’t changed. Webb's former deputy field director, Josh Chernila, is keeping the faith. "I love Senator Webb," he tells me. "I think he is a unique and powerful presence in American politics. He once said that a revolution in American politics would take place if working class whites and working class African Americans could put aside their differences and find common cause. Truer words were never spoken."

But asked for his take on when Webb might start vocalizing the urgent need for this common cause on the campaign trail, Chernila suggested that it was something that was going to slowly and subtly reveal itself: "His strategy there has not been to talk directly about institutional racism in the judicial system, but to focus on the uniform abuses in for-profit prisons and sentencing.  He's not explicitly talking about race there, but everything there is about race."

"So, I don't think he'll actually speak directly to race," says Chernila, "even if it is likely he could be a powerful leader for bringing justice to communities of color."

But Webb is already off to a rough start on the common cause front. Earlier this month, while discussing his discontent with the Democratic party in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," he suggested that the reactions of those who sought to remove the Confederate flag from Southern statehouses in the wake of the Charleston shooting were not dissimilar from reality-TV star Donald Trump's comments on Mexican immigrants.

"This kind of divisive, inflammatory rhetoric by people who want to be commander in chief is not helpful. And we have seen from the liberal side as well this kind of rhetoric as it goes to Southern white cultures,” said Webb, enshrining this bizarre comparison.

This didn't sit well with some of Webb's former allies. As Feld reported in the comments of Blue Virginia, Conaway Haskins, who served as Webb's state director from 2007 to 2011, took to his Facebook page to condemn his former boss: "Making false equivalencies between people who oppose Confederate nostalgia and Donald Trump's anti-Mexican comments and insulting as 'far left' the very Democrats who fueled your 2006 Senate campaign surely is a curious way to run for the Democratic presidential nomination." (Haskins could not be reached for comment.)

Feld was left similarly unimpressed. "We saw some of this in 2006. We knew Webb had Confederate ancestors and a fondness for the heritage.” 

“But what does this have to do with Democrats being 'too far left?'” Feld said in exasperation. “It was [South Carolina Governor] Nikki Haley and Republicans who took down those flags."

Wherever Webb goes from here, he'll go without many of the supporters that first took his "Born Fighting" persona and fashioned it into a viable political candidate. The Huffington Post reached out to many of the people who worked prominently on Webb's campaign, but didn't hear back from many of them. One source with familiarity of the situation, however, tells The Huffington Post that a number of "people who were absolutely critical to Jim Webb's U.S. Senate run don't want anything to do with him."

"He seems to be serving as his own strategist," jokes Diamond, who adds, "I don't see him as presidential material. He has an impressive resume, but he lacks the necessary broad grasp of the issues."

"My understanding," says Feld, "is that a number of [Webb's early supporters] may have been helping early in his exploratory period, but they're mostly all gone now."

"He's lost me," Feld continues. "I can't follow him anymore. I don't know where he's coming from, don't know where he's going. Jim is a complicated guy, but this is beyond complicated -- it's just incoherent."

The Webb campaign did not reply to our request for comment.

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