Ah, for the days of the “macaca” dispute. Back then, the Virginia Senate race between Republican incumbent George Allen and Democratic challenger James Webb was dominated by a silly attack on Allen for a comment that offended only the perpetually offended. Now Allen has risked alienating conservative voters by launching his own silly attack on Webb.
The Allen camp hit Webb, a former Navy secretary, for an article he wrote when he was an instructor at the Naval Academy in 1979. In the article, entitled “Women Can’t Fight,” Webb argued that his alma mater shouldn’t admit women because they are unsuited to combat. At a press conference organized this week by the Allen campaign, five woman Naval Academy graduates said that Webb’s colorfully argued opinion had been hurtful and harmful to them. Webb wrote in his article that the academy’s sole dormitory was “a horny woman’s dream,” and that he hadn’t met a single female midshipman he “would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.” The graduates attributed sexual harassment at the academy to male midshipmen’s being emboldened by Webb’s views.
What nonsense. In any case, Webb long ago disavowed this position. As his campaign pointed out in response to the Allen press conference, within a few years of writing his controversial article he supported integration of the military academies; and as Navy secretary he cracked down on sexual harassment in the service and significantly expanded the operational assignments available to women. The campaign also pointed out that eleven years ago, as governor of Virginia, George Allen opposed (correctly, in our view) integrating the all-male Virginia Military Institute, saying “it wouldn’t be the VMI that we’ve known for 154 years. You just don’t treat women the way you treat fellow cadets.”
So what was the point of the Allen campaign’s attack on Webb? Does Allen actually think women should be in direct combat? If so, what current combat exemptions does he want lifted?
The move was also politically ill advised. Retired Naval officers who recall their good old days at the academy when they congregate at Virginia Beach and Newport News have only been reminded of what they once liked about Jim Webb, as have some conservative voters who admired his willingness to fight the feminization of the military. All voters have been reminded that Webb is a Vietnam veteran who knows more about the demands of combat than his woman critics or Allen’s campaign.
The Allen camp may have hoped that Webb’s blunt talk of 27 years ago would offend suburban women’s sensibilities. But why drag up Webb’s distant past when their own candidate is routinely dogged by the bogus charge that his youthful fondness for Confederate flags reveals something about his current views on race?
It is important that Allen, a talented conservative, be reelected, so we hope that this week’s misstep can be attributed to a “macaca” hangover that still has his campaign off-balance. Whether women can fight is not the question. The question is: Can the Allen campaign fight a savvy campaign? That would mean avoiding politically correct gotcha politics and making the case that Webb is too liberal — not too insensitive — for Virginia.