Webb Loss

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2006

In the 1980s, many Democrats, put off by the perceived left-wing shift of their party, voted Republican for the first time in their lives. These were the “Reagan Democrats,” and they contributed to the most significant political realignment in the United States since FDR and the New Deal. The Democratic “solid South” cracked, and political pundits began to argue that projected demographic shifts would give the Republican Party an “electoral lock” in presidential elections. It took longer on the legislative side, but in 1994, the Republicans gained control of both Houses of Congress for the first time (with one short exception) since the 1930s.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party went into decline. Since FDR, the central idea of the Democrats has been that the government’s job is to adjudicate the distribution of resources among competing claimants. Over the past couple of decades, the Democratic Party has taken this to its logical conclusion, treating the United States not as a community of individuals, but as an array of groups whose demands must be met.

As the Alito hearings demonstrated, Democrats have eschewed rhetoric as a means of persuading the electorate, preferring instead to grandstand in an effort to appease the left-wing interest-groups that constitute the base of the Democratic Party. The party’s only hope for returning to power is to throw off the shackles imposed by Moveon.org, the Daily Kos, People for the American Way, NARAL, and the like.

We may soon see if this is possible. My friend Jim Webb announced last week that he will seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from Virginia. If he wins the Democratic primary, he will challenge the incumbent, Republican George Allen.

Republicans should worry. Webb is an impressive man. He is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. As a Marine officer in Vietnam, he led an infantry platoon and company, was wounded twice, and was awarded the Navy Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor as a recognition of valor) and the Silver Star. After he was medically retired from the Marine Corps, he attended Georgetown Law School and later served as counsel to the House Veterans Committee. He is the author of six novels, including Fields of Fire, the best novel there is about Vietnam. During the Reagan administration, he served as an assistant secretary of Defense and secretary of the Navy. Combine his virtues with the fact that Virginia is one of the few states where a conservative Democrat might win, and, if Webb prevails in the Democratic primary, Senator Allen is likely to be in for the fight of his life.

What most endeared Webb to me and many others who served in Vietnam was his unflinching defense of Vietnam veterans against the slanderous charges that have been leveled against them: dopehead, baby-killer, war criminal… you remember. Webb is the man who time and again stood on the front lines of the culture war that still rages between those who served during the Vietnam era and those who didn’t, a culture war that played a major role in the recent election. He could always be counted on to stand up to the elites who peddled falsehoods about Vietnam veterans. Ironically, these slanders were most at home in the Democratic Party, whose nomination Jim now seeks.

What happened? Why does a man who served in the Reagan administration now embrace the very party that, since Vietnam, has denigrated the martial virtues he epitomizes? Part of it is his opposition to the war in Iraq. Webb is no knee-jerk Bush hater, and his opposition to the Iraq war is based on strategic considerations—he is concerned that by committing such a large force there for an extended period of time we have weakened ourselves in the long run against a rising China.

More to the point, though, is his growing anger at the Bush administration for what he sees as a McNamara-like disregard for military advice, and even worse, a tendency on the part of too many Republicans and conservatives who did not serve in the military to attack the service of veterans like Jack Murtha who oppose the war. Webb’s New York Times op-ed of January 18, “Purple Heartbreakers,” was a clear harbinger of his break with the Republican Party. There he wrote:

[I]n recent years extremist Republican operatives have inverted a longstanding principle: that our combat veterans be accorded a place of honor in political circles. This trend began with the ugly insinuations leveled at Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries and continued with the slurs against Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, and now Mr. Murtha.

The political tactic of playing up the soldiers on the battlefield while tearing down the reputations of veterans who oppose them could eventually cost the Republicans dearly. It may be one reason that a preponderance of the Iraq war veterans who have thus far decided to run for office are doing so as Democrats.

Both Jim and I have taken Kerry to task for what he said after the war (regular visitors to the Ashbrook site and NRO may have noticed that I wrote some 14 articles on Kerry’s antics after the war), but both of us were troubled by the attack on his service. I cringed during the Republican convention in 2004 when some genius came up with the idea of mocking John Kerry by circulating band-aids in the shape of Purple Hearts. This seemed to me to be a real case of tone-deafness.

Jim will be a formidable candidate. I already know a number of Virginia Republicans who are inclined to vote for him because of what they (rightly) perceive as his sterling character. It will be interesting to see what happens if he wins (assuredly not a foregone conclusion, given Allen’s real strengths). Somehow I can’t see him hanging out with Teddy Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer, or John Kerry, whose hand Jim once refused to shake. And the idea of Harry Reid bending Jim to conform to his will makes me laugh. When Webb abruptly resigned as secretary of the Navy in 1988 after clashes with Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, he remarked to reporters, “It’s no secret that I’m not a person who wears a bridle well.”

Let us hope that Webb’s move from the Republican Party to the Democrats does not adumbrate a major cultural shift that would deal a major blow to the former: the loss of the “Scots-Irish,” a group that Webb described in his 2005 book, Born Fighting (which I had the good fortune to review for the Ashbrook Center). In Born Fighting, Webb wrote:

[The Scots-Irish shape our culture] more in the abstract power of emotion than through the argumentative force of law. In their insistent individualism they are not likely to put an ethnic label on themselves when they debate societal issues. Some of them don’t even know their ethnic label, and some who do know don’t particularly care. They don’t go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union. Two hundred years ago the mountains built a fierce and uncomplaining self-reliance into an already hardened people. To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else’s collectivist judgment makes about as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And nobody is going to get their guns.

In my review I remarked that these are the “red state” voters. They are family-oriented, take morality seriously, go to church, join the military, and listen to country music. They strongly believe that no man is obligated to obey the edicts of a government that violates his moral conscience. They once formed the bedrock of the Democratic Party—from Andrew Jackson until Vietnam—but have been moving to the GOP ever since. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Webb called the Scots-Irish in America the “the secret GOP weapon.”

But the Republicans cannot take this group for granted. Commenting on a statement that Howard Dean made during the Democratic primaries, Charles Krauthammer opined that Dean was campaigning for the “white trash vote” by pandering to the “rebel-yelling racist redneck.” In the Wall Street Journal, Webb called this “the most vicious ethnic slur of the presidential campaign,” noting dryly that Krauthammer “has never complained about this ethnic group when it has marched off to fight the wars he wishes upon us.” Jim and I disagree on a number of topics—the Iraq war being an obvious instance—but the Republicans can’t afford to lose such people.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.