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Whatever the Problem Is, Jim Webb Is Not the Solution

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Charles Pierce half-defends Jim Webb:

OK, so what’s half-true about what Webb said?

There is no question that the Democratic party has done a god-awful job of explaining to white working people who’s screwing them and why. Most of the people who have tried that have found themselves marginalized, and not always by Republicans, either. Senator Professor Warren is one of the few of them who has managed to explain these matters in such a way that they are both easily understood, and in such a way that she doesn’t sound like she’s talking down to anyone. And she still has a long push up a dirt road before she moves the political dialogue to the point where white working class voters actually act on what she’s saying to them. Sooner or later, it’s up to the voters to decide to stop being stupid about their own self-interest, and to stop falling for scams about how the Poors and Browns are the ones stealing all their money.

The party has to do better at this. Webb’s right about that, although I think he’s more right at the local and state level than he is at the national level, at least for the moment, since the Republicans seem hellbent on torching any appeal they had to minority and women voters. If he runs for president as a “Reagan Democrat,” he won’t be worth listening to. If he runs as a guy who can convince poor and middle-class voters of all races that they share a common adversary, then Jim Webb could make this a very interesting campaign. I’m inclined to give him half-a-shot.

In the abstract, I can see the point. But:

  • Webb is a concern troll who thinks that the indignities of running for office are fundamentally beneath him.  As a presidential candidate, in other words, he’d be a cross between Jon Hunstman and Fred Thompson.  The point here is not that he’d be drawing dead against Clinton — duh — but that he’d be such a bad candidate he’d if anything discredit a good campaign message if he happened to come up with one.
  • I have no problem with the idea that Democrats should think about how to broaden their appeal, particularly with an eye towards making their appeal less selective in midterm years.  The problem is that Webb doesn’t actually have any ideas about how to do this; he just thinks it would be a good idea, which is useless.  In fairness, Webb has shown sporadic commitment to two worthy ideas that need more advocates: reducing mass incarceration and reducing military spending. But while they’re both good and important ideas, they’re far more appealing to the existing Democratic coalition than they are to border-state and Southern white men.   This dilemma is older than the Democratic Party itself, but the problem with getting more Southern whites in the Democratic coalition is that it’s never been a free lunch.  Even leaving aside the issues with the New Deal coalition (Charles is excellent on this in the first part of his post), the coalition that elected Jimmy Carter was a lot more conservative than the one that elected Barack Obama. (Incidentally, this is exactly why I distrust solutions based on “messaging” or “framing” or “moving the Overton Window” or whatever.  The point is generally to assume an available free lunch that doesn’t actually exist.)
  • And because his ruminations about appealing to “white working people” are not paired with any actual content, my initial snarky reaction still stands.  When you talk about the need to appeal to white voters with no ideas about how to do so, it ineluctably (whether intentionally or not) plays into the all-too-common meme that the people of color who are the bedrock of the Democratic coalition aren’t real American voters.

If Jim Webb can come up with concrete ways of broadening Democratic appeal to the Southern white working class, that would be great, although it would be better if he’d pass them along to someone who’s serious about running for president.  But until he does, talking about the desirability of doing so in the way he does isn’t merely unhelpful but pernicious.

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