At least it’s not going to be a one-horse race. With his announcement that he is setting up an exploratory committee to consider a presidential run, Jim Webb has become the first Democrat to challenge Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive – though as yet undeclared – favourite for the party’s nomination in 2016.
“Exploratory” means just that. Such committees are designed to test potential support and, more important, whether the vast sums of money required to finance even a primary campaign might be forthcoming.
They are also a useful way of attracting attention to a candidate before he formally commits himself.
It is quite possible that Webb might decide it’s not worth the bother. But his pugnacious character and intriguing political pedigree suggest otherwise. And in the unlikely event that the lady does not run, or unexpectedly stumbles, Webb could be ideally placed to take advantage.
American voters, it is said, yearn for an end to the dysfunctional feuding that currently passes for politics in Washington DC. They want more bipartisanship and readiness to compromise. On that score, Webb fits the bill: a war hero who rose through the Republican ranks to become Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan years, only to switch parties.
His unconventional background helped him win a Virginia Senate seat in 2006, an early sign that a once rock-red state was turning purple, a point proved when President Obama carried Virginia two years later.
Hillary Clinton in quotes
Hillary Clinton in quotes
1/11 Hillary Clinton
After losing the 2016 election: 'To all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.'
2/11 Hillary Clinton
On running for President in 2016: 'I'm going to decide when it feels right for me to decide. ... certainly not before then [the end of 2014].'
3/11 Hillary Clinton
On the Monica Lewinsky affair: 'It’s liberating to be able to reach the point in your life where you feel you can forgive. Everybody feels they have been trespassed upon and nearly everybody has trespassed on somebody else, maybe not intentionally.'
4/11 Hillary Clinton
On news and hair: 'If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.'
5/11 Hillary Clinton
On being asked which fashion designers she preferred: 'Would you ever ask a man that question?'
6/11 Hillary Clinton
On equality: 'Well I'm very conscious of how important it is for us to shatter that glass ceiling in my country. A country that has done so much for so many women and really has set the standard for women's rights and responsibilities, and I do want to see that glass ceiling shattered.'
7/11 Hillary Clinton
On not winning in 2008: 'I think because I really didn't have a good strategy for my campaign. I didn't plan it the right way. ... As a candidate who was already so well known ... I don't think I ever said, 'Yes, you may have known me for eight years, but I don't take anything for granted. I have to earn your support.'
8/11 Hillary Clinton
On self-confidence 'You have to be true to yourself. You have to be enough in touch with who you are and what you want, how you want to live and what's important to you, to make your decisions based on that. Sometimes that's very difficult.'
9/11 Hillary Clinton
On 9/11: 'Every nation has to either be with us, or against us. Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.'
10/11 Hillary Clinton
On women around the world: 'If women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish.'
11/11 Hillary Clinton
On her political life: ‘I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.’
In Congress, Webb – a self-acknowledged “redneck”, of rugged Protestant Scots-Irish stock whose immigrant ancestors settled in the hardscrabble Appalachians – was an unpredictable figure.
He is no orator, but would on occasion produce the most moving speech. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran: but one whose opposition from the outset to the Iraq war led him into a sharp personal exchange in a White House receiving line with George W Bush in early 2007.
Equally unexpectedly, Webb became a powerful champion of reform of the US criminal justice system and an advocate of less punitive sentencing. He was also an early critic of growing social inequality in the US – an issue that will be central in 2016.
His Vietnam experience, meanwhile, gave him credibility in foreign affairs, especially in Far Eastern policy where he was a strong promoter of US engagement with Burma.
Inevitably, a long, varied and at times eccentric career provides ammunition for political foes. Webb has in the past spoken sympathetically of the Confederacy. He’s written books, mostly about war and soldiers, whose sometimes graphic sexual content has aroused controversy.
Early in his Senate career, an aide was arrested trying to bring one of Webb’s guns into the Capitol building, for reasons never properly explained. And why, if he wants to improve politics, did he quit Congress in 2012, after a single six-year Senate term?
Now he’s seeking the biggest political prize of all. In his announcement on Wednesday, he did not mention either Obama or Hillary Clinton.
But Webb banged the populist drum, lambasting a system he said was rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, positioning himself as ready to fight for the little man, and the poorer, white male voters who in recent elections have abandoned the Democrats.
Right now, everything suggests Webb is the longest of long shots. Other Democrats will surely soon enter the field, while in one recent poll in Iowa, whose caucuses kick off the primary season, he scored only one per cent, compared with 53 per cent for Clinton.
But it’s still very early days – and in politics long shots sometimes come through. Just ask one Barack Hussein Obama.Reuse content