The Curious Case of Jim Webb

Webb's long-shot presidential campaign says as much about the evolution of the Democratic party as it does about his qualifications.

If Jim Webb announces he's running for president and no one is there to hear it, does he make a sound? Yes, but primarily as a lesson in how dramatically the Democratic Party has changed during the Obama administration.

It's hard to imagine Webb as a credible Democratic presidential contender. As a candidate, he hated the chore of campaigning, the main reason that he left the Senate after serving only one term. His announcement was decidedly low-tech, a video featuring a 14-minute speech by the candidate speaking in front of a blue screen, with the URL of his presidential website plastered on the screen throughout. Most significantly, there's no space for candidates appealing to working-class white voters anymore in the party, even though they played an essential role throughout the Democratic Party's history.

In a vacuum, Webb would be a compelling candidate. While independent-minded groups like No Labels obsess over liberal Republicans or independents (Jon Huntsman, Michael Bloomberg) as credible third-party candidates, Webb's profile better fits that bill. He's one of the few politicians who caters more to the populist grassroots than to elite public opinion. He has angered Democrats by expressing skepticism about increased immigration and has been downright critical of affirmative-action policies, but he is passionate about the issue of income inequality. He's ticked off Republicans over their foreign-policy interventionism, with his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War fueling his 2006 Senate campaign. He's skeptical of the free-trade deals that most Republicans champion, and is so at odds with the ascendant environmentalist wing of the Democratic Party that the online magazine Grist headlined its profile: "Jim Webb sucks on climate change."

In a Democratic Party that's been shedding white working-class voters during the Obama era, leaders would be wise to pay closer attention to Webb's views on economic and cultural issue—and consider co-opting some as their own. On paper, his resume is first-rate: decorated Vietnam War veteran, secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, swing-state Democratic senator, and an acclaimed author. At a time when economic anxiety is a defining feature of American politics, Webb's record on the subject is as impressive as Elizabeth Warren's. That he's treated more like a fringe figure these days is a testament to how far his party has drifted from its roots.

Consider: There will be only five red-state Senate Democrats left in the next Congress if, as expected, Sen. Mary Landrieu is defeated in next month's runoff. Even more striking, there will be only five House Democrats left representing districts that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. The once-influential Blue Dog Caucus of fiscally hawkish Democrats is all but extinct. Republicans now boast twice as many blue-state senators (10) and five times as many blue-district representatives (25) than their Democratic counterparts in red territory.

While lots of ink has been spilled charting the GOP's drift rightward, the Democratic Party's move toward ideological homogeneity has been shorter and swifter. In 2006, the year Webb was elected to the Senate, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel elected dozens of moderate-minded representatives across the country with conservative views on gun control and immigration. Even in 2008, when Barack Obama headed the Democratic ticket, House Democrats won deeply conservative districts in northern Mississippi, suburban Louisiana, and rural Alabama. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who lost by 17 points in his bid for a third term, didn't even face Republican opposition six years earlier. This isn't ancient history.

The base of the Democratic Party now finds itself united by cultural issues, not economic ones—and Webb is badly out of step with the changed sentiment. Martin O'Malley's long-shot 2016 presidential play focused on using the Maryland governorship as a socially liberal laboratory on issues ranging from immigration and gun control to the death penalty and medical marijuana. Ousted Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado ran so many ads on abortion and contraception in his unsuccessful reelection bid that the media dubbed him "Mark Uterus" by the end of the campaign. While Elizabeth Warren and Jim Webb share a critical view of Wall Street, his heterodox views on social issues are anathema to the party base. Ultimately, social issues trump economic ones.

Indeed, the space for the "beer track" candidate in the Democratic presidential primary has all but disappeared. John Edwards, pre-sex scandal, filled that void credibly in 2004 and 2008 with his fiery Two Americas sermonizing. Dick Gephardt, the former House minority leader, fought for that political space against Edwards and, to some extent, Joe Lieberman in 2004. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, the majority of the Democratic Party's voters fit the blue-collar billing. Hillary Clinton is facing a much different electorate 26 years later.

During Obama's presidency, the Democratic Party has become smaller and more ideologically homogeneous, and its fortunes have become closely tied to the president. The Democratic coalition has narrowed, becoming more dependent on the less reliable voters who showed up in historic levels to back the president, even if they're less likely to transfer their support to the party as a whole.

Webb is as fitting a politician to tell that story as anyone. He was one of the party's stars when he was the Democrats' Senate majority-maker in 2006. Now, two years removed from the Senate, he's become a presidential afterthought.