It's suddenly getting crowded on Hillary Clinton's left. The latest jostler is Jim Webb, the former senator and Navy secretary, decorated Vietnam veteran, film producer, Emmy winner and best-selling author who never tires of discussing his Appalachian roots — the kind you're born with, not the kind you marry into.
Webb is the fourth potential troublemaker for Clinton in a corner that also includes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Webb and O'Malley are, to understate it, long shots against Clinton in the 2016 nomination race. Warren, a powerhouse on the stump, in the policy arena and as a fundraiser, is least likely to run, though her present-tense answers don't slam the door on the future. The Brooklyn-born Sanders, an independent who calls his ideas socialist, might run as a Democrat. Or an independent. Or not at all.
Are they going after Clinton? Not yet. As Webb put it this week at the National Press Club, "I'm not here to undermine her." Still, this group has the makings of a restive and formidable Greek chorus of status-quo skeptics. They are capable of transforming a soporific nomination process, to which I can only say, yes please. Do we want to argue about government spying and whether President Obama should be bombing the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, much less without authorization from Congress? Sure we do. Should we debate whether the government is too nice to Wall Street, corporate America and the wealthy, and criminally negligent toward Americans left behind? Absolutely, and these politicians would make it happen.
Webb opened his press club speech by painting vivid word pictures of two kinds of poverty. You're "10 years old and black and living in East Baltimore and going to the bathroom in a bucket because the landlord won't fix your plumbing and your schools are places of intimidation and violence and the only people on the street who seem to be making money are the ones who are selling drugs." Or, "you're a kid growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of Clay County, Kentucky, by most accounts the poorest county in America, which also happens to be 98 percent white, surrounded by poverty, drug abuse and joblessness, when you leave your home in order to succeed, and when you do you are welcomed with ... policies that can exclude you from a fair shot at education or employment with the false premise that if you're white, you by definition have some kind of socioeconomic advantage."
Let's take a minute to unpack that, because the choice of those two locales hardly seems accidental. Baltimore is O'Malley territory. It's where he became mayor at 36 and spent two terms trying to reduce the murder rate, attack the drug trade and improve the schools, and it is the narrative he uses to introduce himself to audiences outside Maryland. Kentucky is the home state of Sen. Rand Paul, an all-but-certain Republican presidential contender who, like Webb, is interested in prison reform and less U.S. intervention abroad. Kentucky is also where Clinton crushed Obama better than 2-to-1 on her way to losing the 2008 nomination. It's a natural fit for Webb, who served and still praises Ronald Reagan and who romanticized the struggles and contributions of his ancestral Scots-Irish in his book "Born Fighting."
Webb depicts himself as no friend of Wall Street and no hawk — both contrasts with Clinton. He opposed intervention in Iraq and Libya, and now says that while Obama's actions in Syria appear to be legal, "the question of judgment will remain to be seen." He has a political advantage having represented the nation's premier new swing state of Virginia. As for politicking itself, he says he's made peace with a process he has seemed uneasy with in the past. He calls it "the way that the American people get to know you and to make their decisions about whether they want to trust you."
Though small talk and deal cutting are not his strong suits, Webb seems to think he's the type of guy who — like Reagan and FDR before him — can slice the Gordian Knot of gridlock. "With the right leadership, we can get a lot of things done," he said. The clear implication: Obama is offering the wrong leadership.
At 68, Webb somewhat improbably falls in the middle of the age range of this developing Democratic field. Warren is 65. Clinton is 66. Sanders is 73. And Vice President Joe Biden — still peripherally in the mix — is 71. O'Malley, at 51, is the only interested party so far who needs to keep a careful eye on his future. The rest have very little to lose. While Clinton likely will remain on her trajectory, everyone else can win by igniting the conversations that Americans sorely need to have, regardless of party.
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