Not many Democrats realize it, but today is an important day for their party. Years from now, election-watchers could look back at June 13, 2006 as the moment Democrats rediscovered anti-war veterans -- or as the day they finally discarded the gimmicky but potentially Earth-moving idea of running war heroes as candidates to seem stronger on national security.
Virginia primary voters head to the polls today to select either James Webb or Harris Miller to challenge Republican Sen. George Allen. It's just one primary, but it pits arguably the most attractive "Fighting Dem" against another emerging candidate archetype -- the Mark Warner Democrat -- in a red state. Miller is far from the perfect moderate "Warner Democrat," of course. He is more like a solid liberal. But this probably will be the strongest test for a "Fighting Dem" this cycle outside Tammy Duckworth's bid for Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois' longtime Republican House seat.
Democratic Party leaders -- including Sens. John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and Harry Reid -- have taken the unusual step of endorsing the former Republican Webb, a Marine, author, and onetime Reagan Secretary of the Navy, in the hopes of boosting his anti-war, populist candidacy against the party loyalist and lifelong Democrat Miller.
If Webb shows he can compete in Virginia, others anti-war vets could follow in a range of moderate-to-conservative states including Illinois, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Ohio, and probably a dozen other states in 2008, 2010, and beyond.
Of course, if it doesn't work, this will represent another boneheaded miscalculation by Howard Dean's obsessively anti-war party. If Webb flounders, party loyalists, moderates, and supporters of the Iraq war will be particularly irked. That's because Webb is viewed by many liberals as having sauntered into the party after a career as a Republican and got immediate attention from the highest ranks. Meanwhile, workmanlike Dems such as Miller are ignored because they don't inspire thrills.
A failure here would have other implications, too, beyond 2006. It would deal a blow to party leaders' vision of a new and dovish Vietnam generation to fight Republicans and hawks.
WEBB'S ENDORSEMENT by so many top Democrats is risky, and comes amid the fickle and even downright cynical treatment of other prominent military-veteran candidates. While Illinois' Tammy Duckworth is still a party darling, over the last few months, Democrats have ignored or summarily dropped -- many say betrayed -- most other veteran office-seekers after romancing them last year for this year's races.
Most notable is Paul Hackett, the rising Democratic star and fierce Iraq war critic who narrowly lost a 2005 special House election in Ohio to Republican Jean Schmidt. The Democrats dumped Iraq vet and lawyer Hackett four months ago as a Senate challenger to Republican Mike DeWine to accommodate Rep. Sherrod Brown. This suggests party leaders have cooled on running anti-war veterans in 2006 -- at least when so doing impedes the aspirations of longtime party figures like Brown.
Of course, Webb's sheer appeal might explain things. Webb is not just a war hero but a demigod to several servicemen I know. He authored Fields of Fire, an acclaimed best-selling fictionalization of his Marine service in Vietnam. An estranged Republican, he resigned as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy in 1988 to protest budget cuts and grew progressively unhappier with Republicans until turning to Democrats this year. He is an unimpeachable military man who happens to share the Democrats' disdain for Bush and anger over the Iraq war.
Many Democrats are suspicious of Webb; he endorsed Allen as recently as 2000 and seems too late a convert to trust fully. (He is also a successful filmmaker: If you saw Rules of Engagement, the 2000 court-martial drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, Webb wrote the story and executive-produced the movie.)
Miller is not nearly as sexy a candidate, but he is undoubtedly committed to his party as an insider and policy expert. Formerly president of the Information Technology Association of America, a lobbying powerhouse, he is running as a "Mark Warner Democrat," which is Virginian for a moderate liberal who appeals to conservative voters. In reality Miller is an unabashed liberal. But elements of his platform conform to Warner's model. He has raised more funds than Webb by approximately 2-to-1. The Washington Post endorsed him last week as "better briefed" and "more thoughtful" than Webb.
Webb's endorsement by so many top Democrats will be revealed this evening as either a bold and potentially very successful move to unseat Senator Allen with a dashing anti-war veteran convert, or as a thumb in the eyes of Democratic loyalists. It would be hard for this to shake out anywhere in between.
There are some in the Democratic leadership who see a future of John Kerrys and John Murthas in people like James Webb or Tammy Duckworth. These leaders have pounced on this race because it is their best chance to make "Fighting Dems" work. Looking back at the Vietnam generation, they see a group of ex-servicemen who changed American history. They want to repeat that in the wake of Iraq.
James Webb just might be the man to do it. But if not, it is hard to imagine Democrats finding a more fitting man (or woman) in uniform who shares their view of America's place in the world. And their dream of another Vietnam generation would be weakened.
Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at the Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.