The Trump-Centric Case for Jim Webb as Defense Secretary

That was then: the four candidates who participated in the first Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle, in Las Vegas in October, 2015. From left: Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last night I mentioned the latest Trump-appointment rumor: that the successor at the Pentagon to James Mattis, Marine Corps combat veteran and retired four-star general, might be James Webb, Marine Corps combat veteran and, among other distinctions, a former secretary of the Navy in a Republican administration and U.S. senator as a Democrat.

My argument was that it would be good for the country if Webb somehow ended up in this position, but (given the track record of people serving under Trump) probably a nightmare for Webb himself.

What I didn’t ask is: Why would Donald Trump be interested in the first place? Given his recent experience with one independent-minded Marine Corps figure who had a strongly established pre-Trump identity and record, why would he be looking for another?

Readers have volunteered insights on this point. First, from a reader who was a constituent when Webb was senator from Virginia, and who has long experience in foreign-affairs branches of the U.S. government. This reader writes:

As substantial a case as your post makes for James Webb as Secretary of Defense, Donald Trump and his supporters may be less interested in the qualities you cite than in some other points about Mr. Webb:

-- When Webb dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary in October 2015, he asserted that the Democratic party had moved away from "'millions of dedicated, hard-working Americans,'" and he pointedly refused to say that he was still a Democrat.

-- In November 2016, Webb denounced affirmative-action policies as an illegitimate expansion into "reverse discrimination" of the slavery-oriented intention of the Thirteenth Amendment.  He also suggested that white working-class voters believed that "Democrats don't like them."

-- In February 2017, he condemned the Democratic party for embracing "identity politics" and moving "very far to the left," and by doing so lost "the key part of their constituency," He also made clear that he did not vote for Hillary Clinton and refused to rule out having voted for Trump.

-- As a Senator, while Webb supported immigration reform in principle, he also prioritized "securing the border" over all other immigration issues -- something that clearly fits Trump's current agenda.  

It's easy to understand why Webb might be the best choice for Secretary of Defense that Trump is likely to make.  

It's also easy to understand why Webb might seem so appealing -- for reasons that have little to do with the background you describe.

I can imagine that Jim Webb—who, for the record, I’ve long considered a friend though we see many issues differently—might dispute this or that aspect of the reader’s summary of his views.

But I think everyone would agree that, from his (successful) Senate run in 2006 through his (unsuccessful) presidential run 10 years later, Webb has been a voice for the group conventionally assumed to have moved from the Democratic base to the Republicans’: mainly white, mainly rural, culturally conservative Americans who feel themselves on the losing end of this era’s economic divides. For more on this, see Webb’s book Born Fighting, and his response on behalf of the Democratic party to George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2007. A notable aspect of that  speech is that the Democrats chose Webb to deliver their televised message when he was a brand-new senator, only a few weeks into his term.

And from another reader in the D.C. area, also with long military and intelligence-world experience:

Here are three points [about how the choice of Webb] could help the Republic:

1 It is insane for the President to continue with an Acting SecDef that is  a direct representative of the military-industrial complex with no substantive military experience.

2 Webb is confirmable and confirmable quickly.

3 Because Webb is in harmony with the President's views and capable of drawing down expensive forces, reducing support to dictators, and eliminating some of the 50% waste that characterizes every aspect of DoD, he will free up resources for the President's domestic priorities including the wall and infrastructure.

I still put this subject in the “more interesting than likely” category.  But it’s a more positive possibility than most of the other administration news these days, and I thank the readers for these elaborations.