Political Hay

The Audacity of Webb

For Barack Obama, it's a time to fight for the white working-class vote.

By 5.12.08

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With Barack Obama hurtling toward the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton has one last arrow in her quiver: the superdelegates' fear that Obama might not carry enough working-class white voters to win the election in November.

After ten straight Obama victories in February, these voters still delivered Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to Clinton as if nothing had happened. With Obama now ahead among superdelegates for the very first time and the nomination almost certainly his, a TSG Consulting poll shows Clinton up 63 percent to 23 percent in West Virginia. A May 4 Rasmussen poll shows a 56 percent to 27 percent Clinton lead.

The story is the same in Kentucky, where Survey USA shows Clinton leading Obama by 36 points, 62 percent to 28 percent. A May 5 Rasmussen poll has the race only a little closer, at 56 percent to 31 percent. West Virginia and Kentucky are both heavily working-class and overwhelmingly white. The former is just 3.3 percent black, the latter 7.5 percent.

Hillary Clinton isn't shy about pointing out these demographics. She told USA Today she had "a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," even pointing to an Associated Press report she characterized as showing "how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

Clinton spinner Paul Begala, implicitly acknowledging Obama's strength among well educated white liberal voters, argued on CNN that the Democrats can't win with just "eggheads and African-Americans."

Of course, Hillary cannot win with this kind of rhetoric. The coalition Obama put together to beat Clinton -- combining 90 percent of the black vote with uncharacteristically energized young voters and the type of affluent white liberal who supported Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean -- would be demoralized if the superdelegates took the nomination from them at this point. The Democrats cannot win without white working-class voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but neither are they likely to win with a candidate who takes less than 10 percent of the black vote in Democratic primaries. The wife of America's "first black president" is winning a share of the African-American vote comparable to Barry Goldwater's.

But that doesn't mean Clinton is necessarily wrong. The continued resistance of white working-class voters to Obama's charms ought to concern the Democrats and will likely be the first thing they try to address when the nomination race is over. Their problem may require a radical solution: Jim Webb.

VIRGINIA'S FRESHMAN Democratic senator devoted much of his pre-political life to celebrating the Scots-Irish and the white working class. He embraces the word "redneck" as a badge of honor, writing, "The culture so dramatically symbolized by the Southern redneck [is] the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether." He has even defended the patriotism and honor of Confederate soldiers.

Webb represents a kind of voter the Republicans have lost over the past eight years, having once been a Republican himself and one who endorsed George W. Bush and the man he unseated two years ago in the 2000 elections. He is a decorated Marine and former Reagan secretary of the navy, boasting strong foreign-policy and national-security credentials without having supported the war. In fact, his early opposition to the Iraq invasion on realist rather than McGovernite grounds is what drove him from the GOP in the first place.

In his forthcoming book A Time to Fight, Webb criticizes Democratic leaders for prioritizing "hard-to-grasp themes such as the environment and global warming" over bread-and-butter issues "when our national security is in such disarray and our workers are watching their jobs disappear." And in a chapter entitled "A Nation Descended from Many Nations," in which he makes nice with the multiculturalists he once excoriated, he still writes, "We must, as a nation and as a government, struggle with such issues as illegal immigration and the extent that portions of the so-called diversity programs improperly affect fairness and government policy." That seems a longwinded way of saying he understands many working-class whites are disadvantaged by porous borders and preferential policies.

There are equally strong reasons for Obama to be wary of Webb. Webb is notoriously a loose cannon, whose prickliness and past writings could cause the Democrats no small amount of grief. He is reportedly disengaged from retail politics, preferring to write instead. And Webb is unlikely to be a docile number-two.

WHILE BOTH LIBERALS and conservatives alike have claimed Webb, many of his actual policy views are unformed and prone to shift. He defended capital gains tax cuts during the 2006 Senate race but complains in A Time to Fight that the cap gains rate is lower than the income tax on wages. He has abandoned his critiques of feminism, affirmative action, and leading Democrats. He represents Middle Ohio's views on trade and outsourcing but not on values: he is reliably pro-abortion and supportive of same-sex marriage. Webb's margin of victory over George Allen came not from the conservative parts of Virginia but the liberal D.C.-spillover suburbs up north.

In the Senate, Webb is more slightly more independent than the average freshman but his voting record mostly looks like a typical liberal Democrat's. As your humble servant has put it, he writes like Pat Buchanan and votes like Harry Reid.

Webb wouldn't be the safest pick for shoring up the white working class and winning key swing states. A cautious politician might prefer Ed Rendell or Ted Strickland, the Clinton-endorsing Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio. But would a cautious politician be running for president three years out of the Illinois state legislature?

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.