When most politicians are asked whether they’re considering running for president, they typically toss off a quick one-liner that doesn’t answer the question and then quickly change the subject. But when Jim Webb, former Democratic Senator from Virginia, was asked the question after a speech in Washington on Tuesday, he immediately admitted he was “seriously” thinking about it.
He did so, though, in the tone of voice another man might use to say that he is considering knee-replacement surgery but hasn’t yet made up his mind whether it’s worth it.
Of course, admitting it was really his only option. Webb had mentioned a possible White House bid in media interviews before, and he had just delivered what amounted to a stump speech at the National Press Club, checking the box on everything from income inequality and improving national transportation infrastructure to criminal justice reform and the use of American military force abroad.
Webb, who served in the Senate from 2007 to 2013, has never been the most enthusiastic of politicians. He had a distinguished military career — awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts — and he carried that no nonsense military attitude with him into the political arena, which is more typically full of nonsense. That reluctant demeanor worked for him in his 2006 Senate run because there was a strong “Draft Webb” campaign spearheaded by opponents of Republican Senator George Allen, who imploded during the general election for reasons that had little to due with Webb.
Webb’s single term in the Senate ended with his decision not to seek reelection. An earlier turn in government, as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, ended with him resigning over a dispute with Congress.
Anyone who thought Webb had developed a taste for politics was disabused Tuesday by his grimacing at certain questions, flat out refusing to address others and generally giving the impression of a man who had a long list of places he would rather be, but had shown up out of pure obligation.
How much of Webb’s Cincinnatus act is real and how much is shtick is unclear — he was certainly under no obligation to turn up at the Press Club — but it may not matter. In a race against Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, his apparent reluctance gives him an angle unavailable to a lot of other potential contenders.
Clinton is invulnerable to many of the lines of attack other Democrats might otherwise try to exploit. She was a successful attorney, spent eight years as First Lady, served as a senator and then became secretary of state. Going after her on lack of experience doesn’t pass the laugh test. Her personal life has been so thoroughly aired in the media over the more than two decades of the Clinton family’s presence on the political stage that the chance of finding some issue from her past that disqualifies her on grounds of character in the eyes of fellow Democrats is vanishingly small.
One thing that she cannot deny, though, is ambition. Hillary Clinton wants to be president. She has run for the office once, and is obviously planning on running for it again.
That, in itself, shouldn’t be disqualifying. But a savvy opponent could find a way to persuade the voting public that a desire to be president indicates an inflated ego and exaggerated sense of self-importance. Just ask Al Gore.
A candidate who is reluctantly answering his country’s call could claim a patch of moral high ground unavailable to a career politician merely looking to take the next step in a long career.
There, of course, is Jim Webb’s greatest challenge. If his plan is to run as the outsider called to serve by a country hungry for his leadership, he’s going to need a country calling out for his leadership. At the moment, it’s not clear anybody’s hearing that call except Jim Webb himself.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: