The discussion of Obama-Webb continues. Reihan Salam, noting the bad press John McCain has received in the GI Bill debate, goes so far as to say, “The question is no longer whether Barack Obama should select Jim Webb as his nominee. It is whether he can justify not doing so.” Some commenters at this site have weighed in taking the opposite point of view: Webb’s writings, prickliness, and past political incorrectness will doom him.
I’ll take up the commenters’ points first: These things might doom him with the Obama inner circle, especially since they are going to be sensitive about a running mate who will upstage the top of the ticket, bring his own baggage or anger the women who voted for Hillary Clinton. But they didn’t hurt seem to hurt him in the Virginia Senate race, in part because they are difficult issues for Republicans to credibly raise. Saying that Webb’s books are dirty makes Republicans look censorious; saying that Webb is too conservative makes them look silly.
Daniel Larison argues that picking Webb “will simply draw attention to the ‘weaknesses’ that have been attributed to Obama” and foolishly fight the campaign on the Republicans’ terms. Maybe. But this seems divorced from the actual history behind presidential running mate choices. Every candidate has flaws and political liabilities that have to be dealt with in some way. People made fun of George W. Bush for relying on Dick Cheney, but they won two presidential elections.
The advantage that Obama had when campaigning against Hillary was that she wasn’t meaningfully more experienced than him — her argument was bogus. John McCain, for all his faults, does have a longer resume and more experience. Perhaps Obama could use the Perot-like line of “It’s true I don’t have any experience leading the country into a $1 trillion war.” Or perhaps rounding out the ticket with someone who has military and foreign-policy experience, who would be credible defending the ticket’s Iraq stance in the veep attack-dog role, might be a better idea.
Which is why a choice of Webb wouldn’t be engaging in “a bidding war over who is more militaristic and irresponsible in foreign policy.” Webb took the same position on Iraq as Obama (so did Sam Nunn). But he brings more relevant experience to the table than being a Chicago community organizer or college instructor. As Andrew Ferguson put it, “the use of warrior rhetoric to discredit the Bush administration’s war” might reframe the debate. Or, given the track record of the “fighting Dems,” it might not.
To my mind, the strongest arguments against Webb are these: He has not, in fact, voted like a conservative Democrat in the Senate. And he did not actually win the type of voters he is supposed to appeal to when he ran against George Allen, calling into question whether these voters actually would be moved by his addition to the ticket.