Political Pulse December 2006

One Tough Democrat

For decades, Democrats have been stereotyped as wimpy liberals. But Jim Webb, Virginia's new Democratic senator, is nobody's idea of a liberal. And his confrontational style is anything but wimpy.

When Sam Rayburn was House speaker, he used to tell new members of Congress, "Around here, you've got to go along to get along." Try telling that to Virginia's new senator, Democrat Jim Webb.

A former Reagan Democrat, he was President Reagan's secretary of the Navy. Webb switched back to the Democratic Party and ran for the Senate for one big reason: the war in Iraq. During the campaign, he said, "I was an early voice warning against the implications of invading and occupying Iraq." Six months before the U.S. invasion, Webb wrote a column in The Washington Post warning of the likely consequences. His narrow victory over Republican Sen. George Allen gave Democrats their majority in the next Senate.

Webb can claim special credibility on the Iraq issue. He served in Vietnam and has written best-selling books that vividly depict combat experience. And he has a son serving in Iraq. Webb made a point of wearing his son's old combat boots during the campaign. "I have tremendous admiration for my son and for everyone else who is serving there," he told CNN's Larry King. "But they need to be led properly." He added, "If my son were not there, I would feel the same way."

During the campaign, Webb took on President Bush directly. In the Democratic Party's October 28 radio address, Webb said, "With the right leadership, the situation in Iraq is solvable, but the key word is 'leadership,' which has been a scarce commodity among this administration and its followers." He clearly was including the junior Republican senator from Virginia, whom he regularly excoriated for voting with Bush.

When Bush saw Webb at a White House reception for new members of Congress last month, the senator-elect refused to back down. He confirmed the following exchange, when asked by The Post.

"How's your boy?" Bush asked.

"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb replied.

"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said coldly.

Webb said he was so angry he was tempted to slug the commander-in-chief, a source who spoke to Webb told The Hill. He didn't do that, of course. But he could have—he is a former boxer.

It was a testy exchange on both sides. Webb had just survived a particularly searing campaign. When he claimed victory, he told his supporters, "I would ... like to call on our president to publicly denounce the campaign tactics that have divided us rather than brought us together. This was a brutal campaign."

The White House incident is causing a lot of tut-tutting in Washington. A Democratic Senate staffer told The Post, "I think [Webb] is going to be a total pain. He's going to do things his own way." A freshman senator doing things his own way? Shock, horror. Webb has taken pains to reassure his colleagues, "I spent four years working with committees in Congress. I know how the process works."

For decades, Democrats have been stereotyped as wimpy liberals, just as Republicans have carried the stereotype of being mean conservatives, an image that candidate George W. Bush tried to dispel in 2000 by calling himself a "compassionate conservative."

Webb is certainly nobody's idea of a liberal. He made a point of stressing his commitment to gun rights in the campaign, saying at a rally, "I'm very strongly pro-Second Amendment. I grew up in the culture. I got my first rifle when I was 8 years old. I got my son his first rifle when he was 8. That's a family tradition." Webb resurrects the image of the tough Democrat, an image that recalls the party's glory days under Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. You did not cross those guys without paying a price.

Webb's confrontation with Bush is a striking contrast to the pictures of Democrats meeting with the president to exchange cordial pledges of cooperation and bipartisanship. It's also not the way things usually get done in Washington. But it is what a lot of people voted for.

Presented by

William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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