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The Angry American

Why Democrats love Jim Webb.

11:00 PM, Feb 27, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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REPUBLICANS who still can't figure out the Jim Webb phenomenon need only recall the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Each carved out his niche with a signature trait or theme that made party activists swoon and voters cheer. Howard Dean had the Iraq war: Unlike many prominent Democrats, he had forthrightly opposed it from the start, without any hedging or equivocating. John Kerry had his Vietnam service: the mantle on which he forged his political career in the 1970s. John Edwards had his "Two Americas" cant: a populist appeal to workers anxious over income volatility and to liberals troubled by the inequities of American capitalism. Wesley Clark had his military background: Not only had he won the Silver Star in Vietnam, he later became a four-star general and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

Now look at Senator Webb, the freshman Democrat from Virginia. He is with Dean on Iraq: Webb was barking his opposition to the invasion way back in 2002. He has a Vietnam pedigree like Kerry: Webb served as a Marine in the An Hoa Basin. He is with Edwards on the "Two Americas" riff: "When one looks at the health of our economy," Webb said in his State of the Union rebuttal, "it's almost as if we are living in two different countries." And he boasts a decorated military record like General Clark: Webb comes from a Marine family and earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, then ascended to Navy secretary under President Reagan.

That's the real "secret" to Webb's sudden transformation from longtime Republican to anti-Bush Democrat to liberal hero: He combines the most salient qualities of Dean, Kerry, Edwards, and Clark that Democrats found so attractive in the last presidential cycle. (Like Edwards, he also boasts proven red-state electability.) As columnist E.J. Dionne noted, Webb's SOTU rebuttal "defined the two central moral issues that animate most of the Democratic party's rank and file: the mess in Iraq and the fact that the fruits of a growing economy are not being shared by all Americans." Those themes dominated the 2006 campaigns of Democratic House and Senate winners. So despite his earlier opposition to affirmative action, and his lifelong antipathy toward liberal elites, Webb is now firmly in sync with his new party on its two most pressing concerns.

He made this abundantly clear in his campaign announcement speech last April. On Iraq, Webb blasted "the ideologues in the Washington think tanks who told us we'd be welcomed with rose petals." He had "warned against the war" early on, and maintained that it was "a strategic error." On the economy, Webb railed against "outsourcing" and free trade, insisting that the middle class was losing jobs, and that a "permanent underclass" was calcifying at the bottom, while "people at the top" were "living in a luxury never before dreamed of." His attacks on the "amoral, if not immoral" tendencies of "greedy international corporations" presaged a Wall Street Journal op-ed he published shortly after winning election to the Senate.

Titled "Class Struggle," Webb's piece captured his pronounced skepticism of globalization, free trade, and corporate America--with a few jabs at U.S. immigration policy thrown in. "The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century," Webb wrote. "Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic's range." Meanwhile, "Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Many earned pension programs have collapsed in the wake of corporate 'reorganization.' And workers' ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated by the twin threats of modern corporate America: If they complain too loudly, their jobs might either be outsourced overseas or given to illegal immigrants."

LIKE DEAN'S, Webb's anger is palpable. His now-famous White House confrontation with Bush--where Webb responded curtly to the president's question about his son serving in Iraq--was the sort of stuff that energizes antiwar Democrats and liberal bloggers. Not only does Webb exude fury about the war; not only is his son a Marine stationed in Iraq; but he also has the military credentials that (as many Democrats see it) shield him against Republican charges of being "soft" on national security. Plus, he used to be a Republican--and who better to attack the current administration?