When Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator and Navy secretary, left the Democratic primary race in October, he hinted that he might mount an independent run for president. That looks more likely now that Webb has blasted his party’s front-runner for her “inept leadership” as secretary of state.
“Hillary Clinton should be called to account for her inept leadership that brought about the chaos in Libya, and the power vacuums that resulted in the rest of the region,” Webb wrote in a Facebook post Saturday. “While she held that office, the U.S. spent about $2 billion backing the Libyan uprising against Qaddafi. The uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring, led directly to Qaddafi being removed. . . . Now some 2,000 ISIS terrorists have established a foothold in Libya. Who is taking her to task for this?”
Political observers can be excused for shaking their heads at a Webb race as an independent. A mercurial candidate and poor fundraiser, he never garnered more than 1 percent support among Democrats before dropping out. But Webb knows that people underestimated the impact of Green-party candidate Ralph Nader on the 2000 race. Nader raised only $8 million and was ignored by major-network TV-news coverage. But he managed to win 2.7 percent of the national vote, clearing 5 percent in ten states. Democrats still blame his presence on Florida’s ballot for costing Al Gore Florida’s electoral votes and handing the presidency to George W. Bush.
It’s unclear whether Webb would hurt one major-party candidate more than the other. Conservatives laud his service as a decorated Vietnam War veteran and secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. But while he was in the Senate, Webb was a reliable vote for Democratic initiatives, including Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill. An economic populist, he says that both parties are too close to Wall Street and are responsible for the drop in the median income of middle-class families – it’s fallen four percentage points since 2000.
Webb, who has written several history books, compared the U.S. to the declining Roman Empire in his 2008 book A Time to Fight:
The whole body of government, Emperor and Senate alike, turns its eyes away from the forces that are bankrolling its tenure while selling off the Empire for personal profit. The citizens, alternating between disgust, apathy, and fear, know that their way of life is unraveling before their eyes and see that their leaders are either powerless or disinclined to act.
Webb’s candidacy might appeal to two constituencies that provided key support for past independent races. His military background and his disgust for the Obama foreign policy that Hillary Clinton is obliged to defend could attract pro-military voters in both parties, like those who backed Ross Perot in the 1990s. His reputation as an incorruptible straight shooter might attract the kind of voters who fueled John Anderson’s 1980 independent run for president (which won 7 percent of the vote). Alienated voters see Hillary Clinton as an unethical shape-shifter, and many of the Republican candidates as feckless or extreme — these people would be another potential source of votes. In October, political analyst Michael Barone noted that in his 2006 Senate race in Virginia, “Webb ran strongest in high-education Northern Virginia and ran behind in most of rural Virginia.” In other words, he might appeal most to voters who are disgusted with the system but who disdain the slippery nature of Hillary Clinton or the bombast of Donald Trump.
#share#But could Webb get on the ballot in enough states to make a difference? Craig Crawford, a former columnist who is a key Webb adviser, says that the logistics of promoting an independent candidate are much easier than when Nader ran in 2000. Social media and voter-targeting software give alternative candidates better access to target audiences.
‘He is personally offended at Hillary Clinton’s e-mail-server scandal and poor choices as secretary of state.’
Ballot access for an independent isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be, thanks to favorable court rulings in many states. Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, estimates that a total of 590,000 signatures would guarantee an independent a spot on every state ballot. “Paying top dollar to signature collectors and submitting twice the required amount of signatures as a cushion would cost only about $3 million nationwide,” he tells me. North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas have the toughest signature requirements and Webb might be forced to skip them. Georgia’s signature threshold is also high but may well be overturned as part of a pending federal court case challenging signature requirements.
We don’t yet know whether Webb will run as an independent. He played a game of cat and mouse with reporters before his presidential race, choosing to announce in early July of this year and then dropping out in October. Most states don’t require signatures for ballot access to be turned in until August, so Webb could delay any final decision for months.
#related#But friends of his are more and more convinced that he is ready for one last mission (he turns 70 in February). “He is personally offended at Hillary Clinton’s e-mail-server scandal and poor choices as secretary of state,” a close friend of Webb’s tells me. “As for the Republicans, Donald Trump’s foreign-policy zigzags and the inexperience of the others appall him.”
Jim Webb isn’t going to be president, but if the 2016 general election is as close as the current polls suggest, he could easily be a spoiler. In any event, his experience and gravitas would add to the political debate — that is, if the entertainment-obsessed media would deign to cover him.
— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.