Jim Webb: The redneck Vietnam vet who is eyeing the presidency

Jim Webb has become the first Democrat to challenge Hillary Clinton

Click to follow

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.


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.