In 2006, Virginia sent an interesting and unlikely Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Jim Webb was a decorated Marine who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy. He left the administration to oppose defense budget cuts, especially those which threatened the 600-ship Navy Reagan had built. Just six years before winning the Democratic senatorial nomination, Webb had endorsed both George W. Bush and George Allen.
Although Webb opposed the Iraq war, he hated the McGovernites who had taken over his ancestral Democratic Party. “Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” he once told a radio interviewer. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to watch her slit her wrist.” He wasn’t very fond of Bill Clinton either. “Every time I see him salute a Marine,” Webb remarked, “it infuriates me.” When Clinton left office, Webb gave him this raspberry on the page of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page: “It is a pleasurable experience to watch Bill Clinton finally being judged, even by his own party, for the ethical fraudulence that has characterized his entire political career.”
Webb also despised the feminism, collectivism, and political correctness of American liberals. He praised Southern culture as “the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether” and the biggest “obstacle to the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness.” He described affirmative action as “a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.”
Even as late as his Senate campaign, Webb favored capital-gains tax cuts, defended the Second Amendment, and seemed open to voting to confirm conservative judges. But once he was elected, the man Andrew Ferguson called “the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland” compiled a conventional liberal voting record virtually indistinguishable from Harry Reid’s.
Gone were Webb’s fiery denunciations of liberalism. He campaigned not only with Clinton but also John Kerry, a man whose hand Webb reportedly refused to shake for 20 years after the Vietnam War. The Jim Webb of Born Fighting and the op-ed page wasn’t the man who served in the Senate. The party-line Democrat and netroots darling who replaced him was unlikely to win reelection because the political ground shifted beneath Webb’s feet. He barely beat a mistake-prone incumbent in a Democratic year as Virginia was turning blue; he stood little chance as Virginia trends back to the right and has become ground zero for opposition to Obamacare, for which Webb voted.
So it was interesting that Webb announced he would not seek reelection the same week it was disclosed that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was closing its doors. Webb wasn’t a DLC Democrat — even as a conservative, Webb’s economic nationalism was at odds with their free-trading business-friendliness; in his more liberal form, Webb’s pugnacity was at odds with their triangulation — but they were both hailed as answers to the same question. How can Democrats win over Southerners, independents, and even moderate conservatives?
Twenty-five years ago, some Democrats thought the DLC was the answer. Five years ago, they thought it was Webb. (The real answer seems to be: let Republicans grow complacent and make so many mistakes that Southerners, independents, and even moderate conservatives start to forget what real Democrats govern like.) Now Webb and the DLC have another thing in common: neither of them could raise enough money to remain politically viable.
Ed Kilgore, writing in that DLC of liberal magazines known as the New Republic, is irritated with those who say the organization’s end is emblematic of the broader woes faced by centrist Democrats. Don’t these people know how many jobs DLC Democrats have in the Obama administration? (DLC honcho Bruce Reed left to become Joe Biden’s chief of staff, for instance.) How prominent some of the DLC’s alumni are? How much individual DLCers disagreed, even on such vital issues as the virtues of Joe Lieberman?
On one level, this is strikingly shallow analysis. When Bill Clinton was president, most partisan Democrats argued that the path to increased economic growth was lower interest rates through balanced budgets (albeit financed by modestly higher tax rates, but even then only on the “wealthy” and only in comparison to the Reagan-Bush years). Now they have mostly gone back to believing that the economy is best stimulated by government spending, including record deficit spending. There were always theoretical and empirical problems with “Rubinomics” — named after Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin — but it was very different from Obamanomics.
There is also the small matter, well documented in Ari Berman’s excellent book Herding Donkeys, that the Obama campaign was infused with the activist energy of the DLC’s enemies within the Democratic Party. Obama’s strategy for winning the nomination, over Hillary Clinton of all people, owed more to Howard Dean than Bill Clinton. Obama’s election as president and the 2006 Democratic victory before that convinced many Democrats that the DLC was unnecessary.
“We pushed the party so far left that we positioned it squarely in the American mainstream and last year won a historic, sweeping congressional victory, something the ‘centrist’ groups had been unable to accomplish for decades — not even in the DLC’s glory days of the 1990s,” wrote Markos Moulitsas and Susan Gardner in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
Yet there is a sense in which Kilgore’s criteria are right. The DLC was never really about being genuinely moderate or conservative, though a few of its members were. It was mostly about identifying Democratic political weaknesses — especially on issues like crime, economics, and national defense — and coming up with the right messaging to fix them, so Democrats could win more elections. When fairly liberal Democrats joined the DLC, they weren’t signaling they were moderates. They were indicating they wanted to win moderate voters. That’s why prominent DLCers like Clinton and Bob Kerrey tended to hail from states where you could only be so liberal and still get elected.
The most ridiculous example of this was Harold Ford, a former DLC chairman. Ford spent his entire time in Congress trying to position himself for a statewide race. When he finally was the Democratic nominee for Senate, he landed himself on the cover of Newsweek by campaigning on a platform almost as conservative as his Republican opponent’s. He later repudiated nearly all these positions during an abortive Senate bid in New York. Ford damaged the DLC brand by being the only Democrat to lose a close Senate race in 2006, and damaged his own reputation with his blatant pandering to liberals.
Ford’s problem is the DLC’s. Moderates face extinction because they risk primary challenges within the party and general election losses to more authentic conservatives outside the party. Last November cut the ranks of the Blue Dog Coalition in half. The surviving Blue Dogs have been brought to heel. Of the 13 remaining Democrats who voted against Obamacare last year, only three voted for repeal. Gene Taylor, the Mississippian who was the most conservative Democrat in Congress, is gone. He voted against Obamacare, the stimulus, and cap and trade, but could not survive his vote to make Nancy Pelosi speaker.
Yes, the Democrats do seem to have picked the Nixon-Reagan “lock” on the Electoral College. And while they no longer need Clinton himself to do it, there was a decidedly Clintonian feel to Obama’s recent State of the Union, particularly in its insistence that we can cut spending and balance the budget, but we must also “invest” in infrastructure and education. The DLC’s occasionally interesting think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, lives on (they did yeoman’s work on corporate welfare). So do many individual “New Democrats.”
But today’s Democratic Party isn’t one where a Jim Webb can aspire to high office and still sound anything like himself. That party is deader than the DLC and is almost as distant a memory as Grover Cleveland.