Jim Webb is a former U.S. senator from Virginia who has announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a possible run for president in 2016. He has been described as a centrist Democrat, and his campaign is likely to appeal to those concerned the Democratic Party has drifted too far to the left and is out of touch with the values of most of the American public.
He has significant experience in defense and national security issues, including stints as an assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. He was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, although it should be noted he is hardly a dove on defense matters – he fought in the Vietnam War as a lieutenant leading a combat platoon, and he still supports the Vietnam War although he is sharply critical of the strategic and policy decisions made regarding it.
Webb has a populist message that could be attractive to rural and blue-collar voters, something his party has struggled with in recent elections. He was considered one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party after his narrow win over incumbent Sen. George Allen, but his views on some cultural issues, support for the fossil fuel industry, and opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy are out of step with most of his party, which could be a problem in attracting votes during the nomination process.
Webb has relatively low name recognition entering the 2016 campaign cycle, and his general dislike of campaigning could make it difficult for him to establish himself as a viable candidate. But he is regarded as a skilled and effective speaker when motivated, and he has the ability to appeal to relatively conservative voters in the Democratic Party. The flip side is that he is likely to struggle with groups such as advocates for women’s and minority rights, environmentalists, and anti-corporate elements.
Webb is probably a long shot to win the Democratic Party nomination for these reasons, but he has the skills to become a legitimate contender, particularly if he can draw voters into the nomination process who have otherwise felt ignored by Democrats in recent years.
Webb was born in St. Joseph, Mo., to James Henry Webb and Vera Lorraine Hodges.1 He grew up in a military family (his father was in the U.S. Air Force) and lived all over the United States as well as a stint in England.2
He attended University of Southern California for a year before enrolling at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he graduated in 1968, earning the Superintendent’s Letter for Outstanding Leadership. He then served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer until 1972. After leaving the Marine Corps following the treatment of wounds he received while serving in Vietnam, Webb enrolled in Georgetown University’s law school and earned his Juris Doctor degree.3
Over the course of his career following his time as a Marine Corps officer, he served as a congressional staffer, assistant secretary of defense, and secretary of the Navy under Reagan. He is also an Emmy-award-winning journalist, filmmaker and author of 10 books. He has also taught literature at the U.S. Naval Academy and was a Fellow at the Harvard institute of Politics. He served one term as a U.S. senator from Virginia from 2007 to 2012.4
He is married to Hong Le Webb, a securities and corporate lawyer. Hong Le is his third wife. Webb has five children (one with his current wife), as well as a stepdaughter from Hong Le’s previous marriage.5 He was previously married to Barbara Samorajczyk, a member of the Anne Arundel (Md.) County Council, and Jo Ann Krukar, a health care lobbyist who also assisted on Webb’s 2006 senatorial campaign.6 He also speaks fluent Vietnamese.7
In his 2006 campaign against incumbent Sen. George Allen, Webb’s key platform issue was his opposition to the Iraq War. During his single term in the U.S. Senate, Webb stuck to that platform issue and in March 2007 voted in favor of moving troops out of Iraq.8 He also opposed U.S. action in Libya.9
Webb promised not to raise taxes on ordinary earned income, although he did support raising taxes on capital gains.10 He largely kept this promise through his support of extending the Bush tax cuts,11 although he did support Obamacare, which included tax hikes on earned income.
Webb has been criticized over his political action committee: It paid both his wife and daughter for services provided to it and spent relatively little to support other candidates.12
As a senator, Webb sponsored and passed a private bill that allowed a Japanese citizen and her son to gain permanent residency in the United States after her husband (her son’s father) was killed in Iraq.13 Private bills are generally frowned upon because they only serve a single purpose or person and can be considered favoritism. However, in the case of the “relief for Hota Nakama Ferschke” bill, Webb was not the only supporter for this military widow’s cause and it allowed her to raise her son in the United States, a request of her husband before his death in Iraq.
In 1988, Webb resigned as secretary of the Navy under Reagan when he disagreed with budget cuts.14
He has also had his toe in both major political parties – prior to running for the Democratic nomination to challenge the incumbent senator in Virginia, Webb was a Republican.15 Although he is often thought of as a centrist or even conservative Democrat, he supported most major elements of President Barack Obama’s agenda, including Obamacare.
Webb has received many commendations throughout his career. He earned the Superintendent’s Letter for Outstanding Leadership upon graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy and the Horan Award for excellence in legal writing while at Georgetown University Law School.16
During his tour in Vietnam, he received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals, and two Purple Hearts.17
As a U.S. senator, Webb served as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relation’s subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs. He also served on the Senate Committee on Armed Services as the chairman of the Personnel Subcommittee and as a member of the Senate Veterans’ Committee and the Joint Economic Committee.18
In 2007, Webb delivered the Democrats’ rebuttal to Bush’s State of the Union speech. Commentary from media following the rebuttal included claims that “a star was born” and that the speech was “eloquent; and it was forceful.”19 Another description of Webb’s speaking ability said, “He is known to speak from the heart and the mind and he’s got considerable voltage in both areas.”20 Webb has written 10 books.
Webb’s appearance in the first Democratic presidential debate did little to remind anyone of his 2007 State of the Union response. He was widely viewed as a “loser” of the debate,21 spending time arguing with the moderator over how much speaking time he had been allocated and “meandered” through his responses according to one pundit.22
Webb is not known for enjoying campaigns and politicking. According to National Journal, Webb “hated the chore of campaigning, the main reason that he left the Senate after serving only one term,”23 while The Daily Beast wrote that the “2006 Webb campaign had the feel of a forced march, a mood that very much reflected the candidate himself. His public appearances had all the spontaneous joy of a line inspection at Camp Lejeune. … He possessed none of the innate muscle memory of a natural pol—the ready banter, the easy saunter, the reflexive hand-to-shoulder intimacy.”24
Webb has only a single election under his belt, one that he barely won after his opponent, the incumbent senator, was caught on video apparently using an ethnic slur. His election was also buoyed by a “wave” election in favor of Democrats across the country. This leads to some doubt about his campaigning abilities.
Despite being the junior senator from Virginia and a first-term senator, Webb was able to pass legislation, including a private bill – not a typical accomplishment for new members in Congress. His biggest legislative accomplishment was passage of a new GI Bill updating and expanding the post-World War II era program.25
In his 2006 campaign for the Senate, Webb promised not to raise taxes on ordinary earned income, although he did support raising taxes on capital gains.26 He stuck by this position during the 2011 debt ceiling fight, opposing higher income taxes but suggesting the capital gains rate be raised while “loopholes” be closed and subsidies eliminated or reduced.27 He did vote for the “fiscal cliff” deal reached by Obama and House Republicans that extended the Bush tax cuts for most Americans but raised them for high-income earners.28
Webb did introduce a bill that implemented a windfall profits tax on corporations that received more than $5 billion from TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program signed into law in 2008 in response to the economic meltdown of U.S. financial institutions.29
In a December 2014 speech, following his announcement of a presidential exploratory committee, Webb discussed tax reform and his preference to reducing corporate taxes while eliminating loopholes and increasing the capital gains tax.30
Webb was a supporter of labor union initiatives during his term as senator. He voted for a bill that would have prohibited employers from interfering in elections to form unions.31 He also voted against a bill that would have stripped the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of its collective bargaining rights.32 In 2009 Webb declined to say whether he would support card check legislation (effectively eliminating secret ballot elections in union organizing and campaigns) and suggested it was the wrong time to be debating the issue.33 He has touted the fact that as a Senate candidate in 2006, he participated in a union picket line, a first for a Virginia candidate for statewide office.34
Webb voted against the Senate taking up a vote on the REINS Act,35 which would have required a cost/benefit analysis of new regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This was mildly surprising given Webb’s generally pro-energy voting record and the fact that Virginia is a coal-producing state. He has shown concern about EPA regulations that impose substantial burdens on private property owners for minimal benefits, singling out for criticism clean water rules by the EPA that he feels are excessive.36
During his Senate campaign he said he “strongly supports” network neutrality, a policy imposing significant regulation on Internet service providers’ ability to manage their networks,37 and he reiterated his support for the policy in a September 2015 interview.38
Energy & Environment
Webb has drawn criticism from many environmental groups for his positions on climate change. Shortly after announcing his potential candidacy for president, leftist publication Mother Jones published an article titled “Jim Webb Wants to Be President. Too Bad He’s Awful on Climate Change,”39 while Grist, a left-wing environmental website, featured an article titled “Jim Webb sucks on climate change.”40
Webb’s voting record included allowing the Keystone XL pipeline project to move forward,41 voting to allow offshore drilling in Virginia,42 and opposing the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.43 Webb also opposed a budget bill that included a cap-and-trade program44 and reiterated his opposition to cap-and-trade in June 2015.45
He is an advocate of nuclear power.46
Webb has received a lifetime score of 81 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.47 He supports developing alternative energies instead of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.48
Budget & Spending
In a December 2014 speech, Webb indicated he believes the federal budget needs to be tightened and would want to audit every federal agency and their programs and have them re-justify each program.49 As president, he said he wants to work with both sides of the aisle to address national debt.50
Webb voted against a balanced budget amendment51 and for increasing the debt ceiling,52 voted against a one-year moratorium on earmarks,53 and voted in favor of the stimulus package.54 He did support a budget amendment reducing non-defense discretionary appropriations by 5 percent.55
As a senator he inserted an earmark into federal spending to provide greater Internet access for rural areas of Virginia, and in a September 2015 interview he suggested he would favor similar spending to do the same nationally.56
Entitlements & Welfare
On entitlements, Webb voted against the Paul Ryan budget that included allowing Medicare recipients to choose private insurance plans.57 On his 2006 AARP questionnaire, Webb indicated he opposed the privatization of Social Security,58 and he received the Virginia Education Association’s (Virginia’s teachers union) endorsement because of his opposition to privatizing Social Security (among other factors).59 Webb also voted against income means testing to determine Medicare Part D (prescription drugs) premiums.60
He called his vote for Obamacare the hardest vote he had to take while in the Senate. He said that doing something was better than doing nothing even though there were flaws in the program and legislation. He referenced his mother’s impoverished upbringing and said she lost three siblings due to lack of medical care.61 In 2009, he did speak to the need for a competitive health care market and the need for competition if a public option for health care reform was passed.62
Webb supported a bilateral trade agreement between Vietnam and the United States, suggesting it was an important tool to keep Vietnam from succumbing to the Chinese.63 He also supported free trade agreements with Peru,64 Korea,65 Panama66 and Colombia.67 In a June 2015 interview he touted his pro-free trade record but said he was unsure whether he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and he said would have voted against fast-track negotiating authority for Obama.68
On immigration, Webb has supported building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border69 and supports securing the border before taking steps to address the illegal immigrants in the United States.70 He has said he believes Obama has the executive authority to defer deportation of illegal immigrants en masse.71
Webb has supported limiting farm subsidies to a cap of $250,000 for a married couple.72 He also supported a bill that would grant subsidies to part-time farmers with an average gross income that does not exceed $250,000 or full-time farmers that have a gross income that does not exceed $750,000.73 He voted for an amendment that would have eliminated sugar subsidies.74
He continues to support having a farm subsidy program, however.75
Webb voted in 2012 to reauthorize funding for the Export-Import Bank, which is often considered an example of corporate welfare.78
Although he co-sponsored legislation79 and voted to end ethanol subsidies in 2010,80 he more recently said he favored keeping the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), a policy that requires a certain amount of ethanol, biodiesel, and other unconventional fuels be bought and blended by gasoline refiners.81 He has suggested flexibility may be needed with the RFS however, noting that in 2012 the policy caused feed prices for livestock producers to “skyrocket.”82
Banking & Finance
Webb voted for the Dodd-Frank bill that imposed heavy regulation on financial institutions.83
Webb has an extensive background in military and national defense policy. He served as a platoon leader and was wounded in combat in Vietnam, and he later worked for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He was the first assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs and then secretary of the Navy under Reagan. He resigned as secretary of the Navy over budget cuts.84
In June 2015 Webb delivered a speech at George Mason University on his foreign policy approach, which the Washington Free Beacon summarized as “the need for the United States to state its national security objectives clearly, to develop relationships with allies it can trust, to work with countries that are not hostile to its citizens, to honor its treaty agreements, to maintain superiority in strategic systems and technology, and to preserve and exercise the national right of self-defense overseas.”85
During the course of his private sector career, Webb worked as a business consultant for companies interested in doing business in Vietnam.86
Webb supported the ratification of a treaty with Russia to reduce offensive arms (the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).87 He also supported Obama’s strategy of sanctions against Russia in reaction to the threats against Ukraine.88
He sees China as a major threat to the U.S. and believes that the U.S. needs to intervene to keep the region stable,89 calling for limited trade sanctions in response to China’s claim of sovereignty over an increasing swath of international waters in the region.90 During the first Democratic presidential debate Webb identified cyberwarfare with China as one of the top two national security threats facing the country.91
War on Terror
Webb ran his 2006 U.S. Senate campaign primarily on a platform of opposing the Iraq War. His opposition was largely based on a belief that strategically U.S. military assets should be focused on North Korea instead.94 He also opposed Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya95 and pushed to require congressional authorization for a president to begin a pre-emptive war with Iran.96 In August 2015, Webb announced his opposition to the agreement with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration.97
Early in his tenure, Webb voted in support of redeploying U.S. troops out of Iraq and against creating a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.98 99 When asked about Obama’s decision to launch air attacks in Syria against ISIS, Webb said the U.S. should not become an occupying force in that country.100
Military Preparedness & Budget
In 1979, Webb published an essay titled “Women Can’t Fight” in the Washingtonian Magazine opposing women in combat. He did not oppose women in the military but did seem to allude to an opinion that they did not warrant admission to the national military academies as those academies were meant to train combat leaders.101
While in the Senate, one of Webb’s signature pieces of legislation, the “Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008,” was passed and became law. This bill expanded education benefits for military veterans who served after the 9/11 attacks.102
Speaking to a Democratic group in April 2015, Webb recounted his own life as an example of American exceptionalism (more frequently terming it the “American dream”), saying, “We need to remember that the American dream is a unique thing in this world. When people say you shouldn’t talk about American exceptionalism… I think the American dream is unique. That is why people are trying to come here. I have lived the American dream. I was able to get scholarships to go to school, able to serve my country, I have had a great experience in my life. I will tell you who has lived the American dream, my wife. My wife was born in Vietnam. Her family escaped Vietnam when the communists took over…she went to Arkansas. Her family settled in New Orleans. Her family never mastered [the English] language. She was 11, and [got] a scholarship to Michigan, ended up at Cornell law. That is the American dream.”103
Judiciary & Crime
With only six years as senator, Webb does not have a long voting history on matters of the judiciary. He followed his party’s line and supported the nominations of Sonia Sotomayor104 and Elena Kagan105 to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Webb applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell (Obamacare tax credits), saying it “clarified the issue of statutory interpretation.”
Webb has been critical of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, and has expressed support for a constitutional amendment to repeal the decision.106 He backs the court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.107
Webb has indicated he is supportive of sentencing reform.108
Free Speech & Religious Liberty
He said he does not believe in a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision recognizing political free-speech rights for corporations, unions, and other organizations, but he does believe there should be legislation to limit those speech rights.109
In 2012, Webb held up legislation that would have created a U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East to focus on persecuted religious minorities. Webb held the legislation up, saying it needed a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the legislation overreached, and that the State Department should be allowed to just do its job.
Webb has defended states’ rights, most frequently through his writing. In his book Born Fighting, Webb defends the Confederacy and the soldiers who fought for it. He writes that historical revisionism has played the ancestral legacy of the Confederacy as a race card when in fact, those fighting for the Confederacy fought for states’ rights, not for the practice of slavery itself.110 111 He has also written that the Confederate states felt they had the right to secede from the federal government under the 10th Amendment.112 Webb supported a bill that gave state attorney generals the authority to file lawsuits against banks in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown.113
In 2006, the Virginia Education Association (Virginia’s teachers’ union) endorsed Jim Webb because of his opposition to school vouchers.114 He has stated publicly that he supports the goals laid out by No Child Left Behind but feels that more federal funding is needed to achieve the goals laid out by the legislation.115 While in office, he voted against a motion that would prohibit the implementation of the Common Core standards.116
Webb has generally been a supporter of individual gun rights. Following an aide of his being caught accidentally bringing a loaded weapon into the Senate office building, Webb said, “I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment; I have had a permit to carry a weapon in Virginia for a long time; I believe that it’s important; it’s important to me personally and to a lot of people in the situation that I’m in to be able to defend myself and my family.”117 He has also supported allowing people to carry their concealed weapons across state lines so long as they have the permit from their home state.118 He was a co-sponsor of a bill that would have overridden Washington, D.C.’s strict gun control laws.119
He has been a supporter of abortion rights, saying he supports Roe v. Wade120 and voting against an amendment to fund enforcement of a federal law banning transporting a minor across state lines in order to avoid state parental notification and consent laws.121
Webb was an opponent of same-sex marriage while he served in the Senate,122 but did not support a constitutional amendment in his home state of Virginia defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.123 During his 2006 campaign, Webb stated he supported civil unions.124 In an October 2014, interview he stated that he is comfortable with the evolution of same-sex marriage in both the courts and public opinion,125 and said shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the issue that he was “personally pleased.”126
Webb does not support affirmative action programs and believes that the original intent, implemented by President Lyndon Johnson, no longer serves its original purpose. He says it has been exploited by immigrant groups to the U.S. and now serves as a tool for discriminating against whites. His overall belief is that nondiscrimination policies should be in place for everyone, including white people.127
Webb may be vulnerable to the criticism that he just “quits” whenever he disagrees with the direction others have taken. He quit as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration because he disagreed with budget cuts.128 He declined to run for re-election to the Senate in 2012 because he was dissatisfied with the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party.129
There has been some dust-up over Webb’s PAC – Born Fighting PAC – and its payment of nearly $100,000 to his wife and daughter after he left the Senate in 2012. The PAC ceased political activity and stopped donating to political candidates as of October 2010 but is still accepting donations. The payments to his daughter and wife were noted to be for “website services and website consulting services.”130
His switch of party affiliation could also be a problem for Webb as a candidate. While it didn’t seem to hurt him in the Virginia contest for senator, it could become one on the national political stage, particularly if he becomes a viable challenger to the frontrunners.
He already realized some problems during his 2006 election associated with his 1979 article published in the Washingtonian Magazine regarding his opposition to women in combat. A group of female Naval Academy graduates publicly stated their opposition to Webb in the 2006 campaign.
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