Democrats are positively salivating over the Virginia Senate race. They believe their candidate, former Navy Secretary James Webb, has a fighting chance to defeat the incumbent, Republican Senator George Allen. While Allen remains popular in the Old Dominion, it's no secret that he has his eyes on a bigger prize, namely the GOP Presidential nomination in '08. Democrats have tried to potray Allen as a politician who is ignoring his constituents, as he gears up for a run for the White House.
In Webb, the Democrats believe they've found the ideal opponent for Allen. Webb styles himself as a Reagan Democrat, with enough conservative credentials to win votes in rural districts, but "progressive" enough to carry urban areas in Norfolk and Arlington, and capture the all-important suburbs that surround Washington, D.C.
Webb is also expected to run on his military record. In addition to his service in the Reagan Administration, Webb was also a Marine Corps infantry commander in Vietnam, where he won the Navy Cross for heroism. Webb later used his combat experiences as the foundation for a best-selling novel Fields of Fire, one of the greatest fictional works of the Vietnam era. By comparison, George Allen never served in the military, a point Webb is expected to drive home in a state where active duty military personnel and retirees form a significant voting bloc.
That's why Webb's weekend gaffe is so surprising. In the Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address, Webb invoked the "Q" word (quagmire) in describing Iraq, and urged the withdrawal of American troops. Webb also recitied the standard party talking points, saying that speaking out against the war is not disloyal to the troops. In the course of a five-minute radio speech, Webb aligned himself squarely with the Kennedy-Kerry-Murtha caucus, on the far fringes of the Democratic Party. Mr. Webb, it appears, is now a full-fleged member of the cut-and-run chorus.
And that's a shame, since Webb has the credentials and experience to offer a genuine alternative to the Bush Administration plan, other than an immediate withdrawal. Mr. Webb could talk specifics, offering his own suggestions for units that could be withdrawn first, areas that could be turned over to Iraqi control and a realistic timetable for when the drawdown could begin.
But rational proposals for national security simply aren't in the lexicon of today's Democratic Party. Instead, Webb used his national forum to solidify his ties to the "get out now" wing of his party. And what happens to Iraq (and its fledgling democracy) after that happens? Webb, like other members of his party, won't say. But it is more than just a bit ironic that a combat vet who expressed bitterness at the Fall of Saigon in 1975 seems more than willing to leave Iraq prematurely, and leave that country to Zarqawi's successors.
That type of message may resonate with the Kos Kids, but it won't play well among Virginia's military voting bloc. If George Allen is a smart politician, he'll start running radio and TV spots in media markets near the state's huge military bases--Norfolk, Hampton/Newport News, and Washington, D.C. Link Jim Webb with the phrase "cut and run," and the former Navy secretary has a problem on his hands.
The reason? Huge numbers of current and retired military members who live in those areas--and vote, in numbers above the rest of the electorate. Democratic strategists realize that the military bloc is a Republican constituency, so they've adopted a strategy of "keep it close" in recent elections. For example, the conventional wisdom for winning a statewide election in Virginia says that a Democratic must be within 5 points of the GOP candidate in Virginia Beach, one of the state's largest military bastions, and a key district for Republicans. In last year's governor's race, Democrat Tim Kaine ran within that margin against Republican Jerry Kilgore in Hampton Roads, and won by a comfortable margin across the rest of the state. Kaine ran as a "new" Democrat, appealing to conservatives and riding the coattails of popular retiring governor Mark Warner.
Webb, on the other hand, has given military voters a strong reason to oppose him, abandoning any semblance of a viable strategy in Iraq for the "cut and run" approach. Against a popular incumbent, Webb may discover that his remarks will cause military voters to run to the poll and pull the lever for his opponent. By positioning himself as little more than a Democratic hack--with the policies and talking points to match--Webb may have dug himself an early hole in what promises to be an uphill race.