Ten years ago in his only nonfiction book, Born Fighting, James Webb came to the defense of red-state America, standing unapologetically for the marginalized Scots-Irish stock that heavily populates the South and Midwest. On the wrong side of the cultural divide since his Naval Academy days in the 1960s, the decorated Marine of the Vietnam War identified blue-collar workers, the military services, the Bible Belt, and country music as the heart and soul of America.
Two years later, Webb upset Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia. But the moment Webb took his seat in the U.S. Senate, the quintessential Southern partisan lost his William Wallace-like fighting spirit and became a reliable cog in the Democratic machine, pleasing his tony Arlington cosmopolitan neighbors, not his embattled Appalachian country kin. As the Daily Caller’s W. James Antle noted, Webb may have talked like Pat Buchanan but voted like Harry Reid on racial preferences, immigration policy, Wall Street bailouts, and ObamaCare. Perhaps sensing the disconnect, he chose not to run for re-election in 2012.
Now, in the wake of the midterms, Webb seems to be reverting to his better Scots-Irish side, blasting the Democrats last week for turning “into a party of interest groups.” Having just thrown his hat into the 2016 presidential contest, he charged: “The Democratic Party has lost the message that made it such a great party for so many years, and that message was: Take care of working people… who have no voice in the corridors or power, no matter their race, ethnicity or any other reason.”
Webb, of course, is lifting up the Democrats of long ago, particularly FDR, whose New Deal brought the South into the 20th century. As Born Fighting recounts, nation-building initiatives from the Civilian Conservation Corps to the Tennessee Valley Authority delivered good jobs to the region, ending the meager existence that Southern families like his own — his mother was born in “utter poverty” in Arkansas — had struggled with for generations. Especially resonating with Webb: Roosevelt’s transformation of American industry into the Arsenal of Democracy, laying the foundation of victories not only in World War II but also the Cold War, conflicts that needed Webb’s rebel-yelling folk to win.
The consummate patriot surely knows that his economic and cultural populism will send the adversarial feminists, multiculturalists, and environmentalists who hijacked the Democratic Party a generation ago into a collective mass seizure.
Which means that although Webb has little chance of capturing the 2016 Democratic nomination, the winner of the Navy Cross and Silver Star in Vietnam could generate a lot of trouble for Hillary Clinton. As Tony Lee of Breitbart News observes, the former boxer — who battled with Oliver North in the finals of their Naval Academy tournament — could tie up Hillary better than any other Democrat, jabbing her to the right on cultural issues, and to her left on economic ones.
While that would help Republicans, the GOP would be shortsighted to limit the value of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy to sabotaging Hillary. Webb’s voice and message offer so much more to a party seeking to build upon its midterm gains and reverse its muted performance in recent presidential elections. His advocacy for the American heartland, whose families sacrifice a disproportionate number of sons to fight our wars, would resonate not merely with red-state voters but also their kin in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Moreover, Republicans should adopt Webb’s clear preference for New Dealers who valued family-wage jobs over today’s Great Society Democrats demanding more welfare and diversity. Indeed, both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan achieved their landslides by keeping faith with Americans in Webb’s orbit, whether as part of Nixon’s “great silent majority” or as Reagan Democrats.
The GOP could also learn from Webb’s prescient reservations about the Iraq War. He considered the 2003 invasion a costly blunder pushed by neoconservative intellectuals — sometimes called “chickenhawks”– who ignored strategic military advice, and a distraction from the long-term challenges posed by China, Russia, and Iran.
This doesn’t mean Webb is immune from criticism. His lame service in the U.S. Senate pales in comparison to his courageous tours of duty in Vietnam. He voted with Obama and the Democrats about 90 percent of the time and threw in the towel — as have many Republicans — on flashpoints that generate the sharpest divide between Yankee elites and Southern rednecks. Before running for the Senate, he came out in support of Roe v. Wade. And on the day of his election, he voted against Virginia’s ratification of a state marriage amendment, a “Jacksonian” effort to prevent the courts and the legal establishment from imposing their social ideology on the people.
Webb seems unaware that the New Deal architects, especially FDR’s labor secretary Francis Perkins, were the original social conservatives, and that the marriage and baby booms that their policies facilitated bolstered the emergence of the high-wage economy during and after World War II in America — and in the South. Nor does he seem to see the links between abortion-on-demand and gender-based affirmative action, articles of faith for Democrats, and the waning of America’s 20th-century golden age.
Nonetheless, Webb’s bold defense of the neglected working-middle class amid roaring stock markets would make good chapters in the GOP playbook for the 114th Congress — and the 2016 presidential contest. Indeed, if the party of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan listened more to fighting Scots-Irish patriots than to libertarian and neoconservative policy wonks, Republicans would discover that reclaiming the red-blooded Americans that James Webb once identified as the “secret GOP weapon” could re-create a center-right governing coalition that would seal their political power for a generation.
Robert W. Patterson served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett. Follow him on Twitter @RWPatterson