It's been a tough couple of weeks for the junior Senator from Virginia. Yesterday, Democrat Jim Webb provided the "Sunday talk show soundbite of the week" for his heated exchanged with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham over Iraq. The Richmond Times-Dispatch provides this account:
The two took opposite positions on whether to begin withdrawing troops -- which Webb favors and Graham opposes -- and frequently interrupted each other. At one point, Webb put his hand on Graham's shoulder. He also smirked occasionally at what Graham said.
The two sat side by side on the set of the NBC program "Meet the Press," hosted by Tim Russert.
"Lindsey's had a hard month," Webb said at one point.
"It ain't about Lindsey having a hard month," Graham shot back.
As the exchange yesterday between Webb and Graham got testier, Graham mentioned that Webb has not gone to Iraq.
"I've been there seven times," Graham said.
Webb called such visits "dog and pony shows," and said, "That's what congressmen do."
The Times-Dispatch--which is not unfriendly to Mr. Webb--offered the usual disclaimer about the Senator being a decorated combat veteran (he won the Navy Cross in Vietnam), and the father of a Marine who recently returned from Iraq. By comparison, the paper notes that, "as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps, Graham was called to active duty during the Gulf War, and served stateside. In reality, Mr. Graham still serves in the Air Force JAG Corps (he was recently promoted to Colonel), and has performed at least one temporary duty assignment in the Middle East.
But the paper's cordial treatment of Mr. Webb--and his exchange on Meet the Press--masks a genuine problem for the Senator. In his short time in the Senate, Webb has displayed a haughty, even arrogant demeanor that belies his "populist" appeal. Consider his "explanation" for the gun that an aide tried to carry into a Senate office building shortly after Webb took office. The aide told police that the weapon belonged to the Senator, but Webb refused to acknowledge the gun was his--until last month, and only after a federal prosecutor dropped the case. Mr. Webb still refuses to discuss whether his gun ownership complies with District of Columbia laws.
As for Iraq, Mr. Webb claims that he's been there three times as a "war correspondent" before winning his Senate seat. Fair enough. But as a member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, we would think that Webb had an interest--some might say duty--to visit the Iraq, given the recent change in U.S. leadership and strategy. True, Congressional visits to a war zone often include the "dog-and-pony" presentations Senator Webb refers to, but they also provide an opportunity for key members of Congress to gain the unvarnished opinions of our military leaders on the ground. Many of the committee's members have been to Iraq this year, but Webb prefers to stay at home, relying on his "past" expertise to assess a rapidly changing situation.
There are also signs that Webb's sometimes-abrasive personality is making it difficult for him to get things done in the Senate. Last week, Senators rejected a Webb amendment that, in today's political environment, should have been a slam-dunk--a proposal to give troops as much time at home as they spend on combat deployments. While the measure attracted 56 votes, it fell short of the 60 required to cut-off debate, and Senator Webb subsequently withdrew it. Critics noted that Webb's measure was little more than a back-door attempt to limit troop deployments, interferring with decisions normally made by the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, Webb's other legislative show piece--an effort to upgrade the G.I. Bill--appears headed for defeat as well. The Senator's plan would offer current military members the same "level" of benefits provided under the original, World War II-era legislation, even granting a $1000-a-month stipend for living expenses. But so far, not a single Republican has agreed to back the Webb proposal. Privately, some Senators believe that the bill is too expensive, and it doesn't account for off-duty education programs that allow many military members to earn a college degree while they serve.
Apparently, Mr. Webb doesn't understand that military education programs have changed dramatically since he served, and many of today's troops don't defer college until after their discharge. That's why tuition assistance budgets in the Air Force (and other services) have more than doubled in the past four years, and the money Senator Webb wants to use for a new G.I. might be better spent on existing programs for active duty personnel.
The lack of support is also a reflection of Webb's abrasive manner, which has clearly rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way. Efforts to limit troop deployments are controversial, but a plan to enhance the G.I. Bill should attract broad, bi-partisan support, regardless of the potential cost. Judging from the tepid support the measure has received (so far), it seems clear that many Senators won't go out of their way in helping "One Term Jim."