Jim Webb's Next Political Move? Some Historical Context

Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has egressed from the Democratic Presidential sweepstakes and is contemplating running for president as an independent candidate.

Webb did not catch on with Democratic voters. His opposition to most forms of gun control, his support for the Keystone Pipeline, and his opposition to the nuclear deal negotiated between the U.S. and Iran are persona non grata within the Democratic base. Faced with the reality that his views are incongruous with the core constituency of the Democratic Party, Webb saw three paths before him.

The first would have him stay in the party and fight for ideas that are unpopular within the party. A second path would be to run for the nomination of a third party ticket that has ideological underpinnings closer to his. A third path would be to run for president as an independent. This last path is the road Webb is contemplating taking.

In 1924, the Republican Party was an ideologically heterogeneous party, which included a conservative and liberal bloodline. Calvin Coolidge, who had succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of President Warren G. Harding, had become the tribune of the conservative wing. Two high-profile progressive Republicans challenged him for the GOP nomination: U.S. Senators Hiram Johnson of California and Robert La Follette Sr. of Wisconsin. Coolidge won the nomination decisively.

La Follette, who had not wavered from advocating a progressive platform in the nomination battle, chose to stay in the Presidential race and won the nomination of the Progressive Party. Interestingly, the Democrats also harbored a conservative and liberal bloodline, and nominated conservative John W. Davis for President. Accordingly, there was a clear vacuum for an unabashed progressive in the race. La Follette also accrued the support of the nation's Socialist Party with his advocacy of nationalizing the railroads and utilities, and by advocating the requirement that a national vote be held prior to entering into a war. While the major party nominees both ran as conservatives, La Follette siphoned off liberal voters from both parties, mustering 16.6 percent of the popular vote.

In 1972, U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA), a domestic progressive and a steadfast environmentalist, was a supporter of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and opposed efforts to truncate the U.S. military budget. Jackson's ideology had been mainstream in the party a decade earlier, but the party had moved to the left on military and foreign policy issues, and Jackson's views were now anathema to the Democratic party's base. Jackson denounced claims that he was too conservative for the party, claiming that: "I am the liberal. The other people have lost their way." Jackson railed against the new left, branding them "an absolute radical left fringe that is attempting to steal the Democratic Party from the people."

Jackson lost in the primaries, but did not abandon his party. Notwithstanding their ideological dissimilarities, Jackson endorsed and actively campaigned for the party's nominee, U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD), who became the facecard of the new left, supporting a decrease in defense spending and the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam.

The 1980 Presidential election saw two liberal Republican candidates take diverging roads. Both the grassroots and the establishment factions of the party were becoming more conservative, and the liberal wing, still prominent in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, was no longer formidable at the Presidential level.

U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker (R-CT), arguably the body's most liberal Republican member, announced his candidacy by excoriating "an antigovernment trend in which Democrats and Republicans alike, in a cheap quest for votes, spit on the word government." Ever the realist, Weicker knew that his views were out of line with the party. He christened his candidacy as "the longest of long shots." Weicker was reminded that the party had moved to the right when his advisor, Tom D'Amore, asked a New Hampshire Newspaper editor about Weicker's chances for the nomination. The Editor bluntly told him: "Mr. D'Amore, let me tell you something. We got Communists here in New Hampshire, and believe me, 'our' Communists don't even like 'your' Communists."

Weicker withdrew form the race just two months after entering it. A poll showed the conservative former California Governor Ronald Reagan defeating Weicker in Weicker's home state. Weicker declared: "I can't go ahead and ask New Hampshire and Vermont and Florida voters to support me if they won't in my own state." Weicker stayed in the GOP fold, and supported the party's eventual nominee, Reagan, despite his ideological divergences with him.

Contrariwise was the road taken by the other Liberal Republican candidate in the race that year, U.S. Representative John Anderson (R-IL). Anderson campaigned on a 50-cent a gallon hike in the federal gas tax. While Anderson also called for a 50 percent reduction in the Social Security tax, most Republicans were unwilling to consider any semblance of a tax increase.

Furthermore, Anderson was also out of step with his party for opposing the funding of the B-1 bomber, and for supporting abortion rights. In addition, Anderson was the only Republican candidate to support Democratic President Jimmy Carter's grain embargo on the Soviet Union as recrimination for their invasion of Afghanistan.

After failing to pocket the GOP nomination, Anderson declared his candidacy as an Independent. Anderson, who called himself an "Independent Republican," was disillusioned that the GOP was likely to select the conservative Regan as its nominee, and felt that Democratic President Jimmy Carter had been a feckless President. He said his announcement to run as an independent was effectuated by the likelihood of "a rather miserable election" between the two men.

Early on, Anderson proved a redoubtable electoral force, mustering 22 percent of the popular vote. However, that was his high watermark. Anderson finished the election with 6.6 percent of the vote.

Should Webb seek an independent bid for the Presidency, he will likely follow the centrist template established by Anderson, not the more liberal one set by La Follette. A Webb candidacy will likely target weak Democrats and Republicans, independent voters, and disaffected non-voters. Those were the same constituencies Anderson appealed to.

Taking a page from the Anderson playbook, Webb might strike a resonate chord with voters who are disenchanted with the hyper-partisanship which has enveloped the nation's body politic. Should he choose to run as an independent or as a third party candidate, Webb might want to call himself "a radical free thinker" and quote American statesman Henry Clay who maintained: "Politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness, It's about governing."