To get a sense of how disastrously wrong things have gone for Barack Obama and his party, look no further than Virginia. The only Southern state to vote against Jimmy Carter in 1976, it had seen Democrats make steady gains here for the better part of the last decade.
Democrats captured the governorship in 2001 and held it fairly easily in 2005. Over the next two election cycles, the Democrats won both U.S. Senate seats, took control of the state senate, and picked up three House seats to dominate Virginia’s congressional delegation. The Washington Post brayed “that this once conservative Southern state is starting to become blue in areas beyond left-leaning Northern Virginia.” In 2008, Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Virginia since 1964.
What a difference a year or two makes. Last November, Republicans swept Virginia’s constitutional statewide elected offices, taking at least 56 percent of the vote in each of the three contests. Bob McDonnell topped the ticket, winning the governorship with 59 percent. This year, Republicans picked up three congressional seats to reclaim control of the delegation. The GOP came within 1,000 votes of picking up a fourth.
So it was it not surprising to see Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who is up for reelection in 2012, trying to acclimate himself to the new political reality. In an interview with RealClearPolitics, Webb recalled a conversation with the president about the health care bill. “I told him this was going to be a disaster,” the senator is quoted as saying. “The president believed it was all going to work out.”
Whatever Webb said behind closed doors, his Senate votes are a matter of public record. He was repeatedly an “aye” in favor of advancing what he later called “a disaster.” Webb nevertheless sees himself as a Democratic Cassandra. “I’ve been warning them,” Webb said. “I’ve been having discussions with our leadership ever since I’ve been up here.” Democrats were forgetting about working-class whites, about small business people, and instead fixating on special interest groups.
Publicly, however, Webb’s dissents from Democratic dogma have been few and far between. He voted against a cigarette tax increase and distanced himself from the administration’s timeline for closing Guantanamo Bay. While George W. Bush was still in office, Webb balked at “comprehensive immigration reform” — but only after it was clear the last iteration of McCain-Kennedy wasn’t going to pass. He wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed complaining that some affirmative action programs “allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations.”
“I needed to write that just so people were sure I still believed it,” Webb told RealClearPolitics. But that’s been the problem with Senator Webb. As a writer, he was an indisputable cultural conservative: he compared racial preferences to Jim Crow, opposed women in combat, talked about being sickened by Bill Clinton. A believer in a 600-ship Navy, Webb resigned from the Reagan administration over proposed defense budget cuts. Webb the politician, however, has voted in lockstep with Harry Reid while campaigning with Clinton and John Kerry.
Even many conservative commentators suspected there would be some overlap between the old Jim Webb and the new. Andrew Ferguson likened Webb to Pat Buchanan, calling him “the most deeply conservative national Democrat since Grover Cleveland.” Webb was slow to form his domestic policy views, but it was thought that he might mix populism with traditionalism, a belief in a strong military with the idea that it should be used sparingly, a man who would defend rednecks and cut the capital gains tax “in case a redneck wants to sell his stocks.”
That Jim Webb might not have made the leadership of either party happy. But he probably would have had a better chance in Virginia’s current political climate than the Jim Webb who wound up in the Senate. As it was, Webb barely beat George Allen after the “Macaca” debacle during the Democratic landslide year of 2006. His seat will be viewed as a prime Republican pickup opportunity in two years.
Will Webb stick around to defend it? “Still sorting that out.” In the RCP interview, he said, “I didn’t want to position myself in the media as a critic of the administration.” That might prove to have been a mistake.