Why Jim Webb Was Doomed

Presidential Candidate Jim Webb Announces Withdrawal From Democratic Presidential Race
Jim Web. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

If someone were to assemble a highlight reel of Jim Webb’s time as a Democratic candidate for president, it would be pretty short: Outside of the Democratic debate last week, his press conference Tuesday announcing that he was dropping out of the race was probably his most widely covered event. Even then, the expectations were set low. The National Press Club, which announced it would be hosting Webb for an important statement about his presidential campaign at 1 p.m., provided a room with only 36 chairs. Twice as many reporters showed up. At the appointed hour, Webb came into the press room, his wife, Hong Le, next to him, and took an extremely wide stance behind the podium, so that his feet poked out on either side of it. He gestured to a framed wooden peg some aides held up behind him.

Several years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s wife, Elizabeth, sent me a wooden chink that had been used to put together the old schoolhouse on the rural farm where he wrote his books,” Webb began. “We’d been talking about the kinship I felt with Senator Moynihan for his thoughtful approach to governance, his willingness to put country ahead of party, and his search for solutions rather than political expediency. She wrote on it, ‘Square pegs in a round hole.’”

Webb turned and gripped the lectern. “Some people say I am a Republican who became a Democrat, but that I often sound like a Republican in a room full of Democrats or a Democrat in a room full of Republicans. Actually, I take that as a compliment,” Webb said. “More people in this country call themselves political independents rather than Republican or Democrat.”

This was, of course, one of Webb’s problems — nobody seemed to know what he stood for, only that he did, indeed, sound like a Republican in a room full of Democrats — but it wasn’t his biggest. Jim Webb’s biggest problem is that he wasn’t heard, period. And that is a problem almost entirely of his own making. Over the year that he ran for president, he barely raised any money. He didn’t build the kind of campaign infrastructure necessary to compete. And maybe most glaringly, he didn’t seem to be doing any campaigning. As a consequence, he failed to register at one percent in the polling averages. In the debate last week, Webb came off as petulant and entitled, using his limited airtime to complain about not being given more of a chance to speak. 

Americans are disgusted by all this talk of Democrats and Republicans calling each other the enemy instead of reaching across the table,” Webb said. “I know what an enemy really is from hard personal combat. The other party is not the enemy — they’re the opposition! In our democracy, we’re lucky to have opposition. There’s no opposition party in countries like China.” 

He had a point, one a lot of Americans would probably agree with, which makes his failure to do anything to get his message out there all the more confounding. In a campaign that has so far been defined by outsider politicians breaking the rules and getting all the love for it, there could have been an opening for Webb. But that would have required a certain flexibility and creativity about how to get his message out that Webb clearly did not have. Or maybe did not have until now. Webb said Tuesday that while he’s no longer a Democratic candidate for president, he might be considering an independent bid for president. Why donors would rush to him now, given his anemic performance as a Democratic candidate, is anyone’s guess. But Webb’s exit from the Democratic race was confirmation that his initial strategy — being an independent voice and a war hero, and thinking that would be enough — is anachronistic in the era of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Would you use the term Democrat to describe yourself?” one reporter asked him. His eyes were shining, but not, it seemed, from any ostensible political passion — the camera lights were burning a little too brightly. After a long pause, he said only, “We will think about that.”