Jim Webb: The Last Of The Reagan Democrats

Virginia Senator Jim Webb is the last of a dying breed of Democrats, but his party may need him if it wants to remain competitive anywhere outside of a Blue State.

RealClearPolitics’ David Paul Kuhn has an interesting profile of Virginia’s Senior Senator Jim Webb, who seems to be rather alone in the Senate right now:

Jim Webb went to the White House last September. The Virginia senator was meeting with the president to discuss Guantanamo detainees. The conversation soon shifted to healthcare. “I told him this was going to be a disaster,” Webb recalls. “The president believed it was all going to work out.”

Democratic leaders broadly believed it was all going to work out. The stimulus, healthcare, cap and trade. Americans were to come around to the left side.

We’re talking about why voters didn’t come around. Webb is weighing my report the morning after the election: Democrats won the smallest share of white voters in any congressional election since World War II.

“I’ve been warning them,” Webb says, sighing, resting his chin on his hand. “I’ve been having discussions with our leadership ever since I’ve been up here. I decided to run as a Democrat because I happen to strongly believe in Jeffersonian democracy. There needs to be one party that very clearly represents the interests of working people … I’m very concerned about the transactional nature of the Democratic Party. Its evolved too strongly into interest groups rather than representing working people, including small business people.”

This is a decades-old rebuke, one uttered today by moderate Democrats like Webb. The balkanized coalition never came to recognize the vice of its virtues. Diverse interests sometimes severed it from the majority’s interests. That fissure moved political tectonics by the 1980s. And we came to know these migrating voters by the president who won their favor.

Webb is a Reagan Democrat who returned home. He was Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary. Almost two decades later, he was the Democrat who scrapped out a win in Virginia.


Webb represents an endangered species. It’s more than his red state Democratic stature, although that would be reason enough. The moderate House Democratic coalition lost more than half its lawmakers last week. But that Blue Dog set is still more common than Webb.

Webb’s one of the last FDR Democrats. An economic populist. A national security hawk. His Democratic politics are less concerned with social groups than social equality (of opportunity, not outcome). His values were predominant in the Democrat Party from FDR to JFK, the period in the twentieth century when Democrats were also dominant.

Webb walks to this older Democratic beat. Today’s Democrats’ are more McGovern than JFK. (Could a John Kennedy win the Democratic nomination today?)

Democrats looked like McGovern on Tuesday. It was that bad historically, for congressional elections. The election’s passage has liberated Webb (a little). He’s privately raised issues throughout Barack Obama’s tenure. Some frustration is tactical. He told Rahm Emanuel last June that the president should provide a “very specific format” for his vision of healthcare reform. It would have offset the, in Webb’s words, “complex amorphous leviathan that bubbled up out of five committees.”

“A lot of people in this country, when they look up here, they want to see leadership. They want to see credibility. And they are not always the same thing,” Webb says. “The healthcare issue really took away a lot of the credibility of the new leadership–Obama particularly–the Reid-Pelosi-Obama trio.”

In many ways, Webb represents the type of Democrat we used to see during the Cold War. Not just JFK, but also men like Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Sam Nunn, who were too liberal on economic and social issues to be considered Republicans, but were equally uncomfortable sitting next to the anti-war liberals that came to power in the 80’s, and then again in the 2000’s. In many ways, though, it was only because he is a Reagan Democrat that Jim Webb was able to mount a serious challenge to Senator George Allen in 2006.

What isn’t clear, though, is whether he’s running again:

But is Webb running again?

“Still sorting that out,” he replies. “I’m not saying I’m not.”

That is not a rousing assurance that he is, however.

Indeed not, and Democrats would have a very tough time running another candidate in Webb’s place against George Allen, who many expect will run for his old seat in 2012, and is widely expected to be able to easily win the GOP nomination if he does. Barack Obama may have won the state in 2008, but Democrats have not had much success in the Old Dominion since then. They lost all three statewide races in 2009, and at least three Congressional races last Tuesday. The prospects for anyone other than Webb in 2012 would be grim, and even Webb wouldn’t be a lock given the extent to which the state has shifted to the GOP over the past four years. Losing Webb would be bad news for Democrats:

Liberals often seem to view Webb’s breed of Democrat more like frenemies. There was Glenn Greenwald, typical among many liberal writers the morning after the election, explaining why he viewed “last night’s Blue Dog losses with happiness.” This is par for partisan flanks. We saw it on the right this year, when tea party activists savored the defeat of Delaware moderate Republican Mike Castle, though it cost Republicans a critical Senate seat.

But Democrats’ problem remains their proximity to their flank. Last week, independents continued their turn against Democrats since 2008. The results were foreseeable. Independents skepticism of big government has long placed them nearer to Republicans than Democrats. These matters led the majority of independents to tell Gallup pollsters last summer that Democrats are “too liberal.”

This independent problem returns Democrats to their white problem. Most non-aligned voters are white. White males constitute the plurality of independents. These are the Reagan Democrats. Webb does not see himself as their spokesman. But he is one of the few Democrats able to speak as one of them.

In this sense, Webb seems similar to West Virginia’s new Senator Joe Manchin, who spent most of his campaigning making clear how different he is from the Obama-Pelosi-Reid triumvirate. Perhaps having someone like Manchin in the Senate will convince Webb to stay, or perhaps the two of them together will end up becoming a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party. Either way, it should be interesting to watch.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Joyner says:
  2. I find the idea of a Manchin party switch interesting but, as you said in the post, unlikely

  3. ponce says:

    Because of America’s two recent misadventures in nation-building, I doubt we’ll engage in another serious war in the next 20-25 years.

    What will designate a Scoop Jackson Democrat during this period?

    Strident defender of the bloated Defense budget?

  4. Tlaloc says:

    Is it really possible for someone to represent both a dying breed and a critical constituency? Seems kind of contradictory to me.

  5. The Q says:

    I am a New Deal Democrat and I believe the Dems have lost their mojo because the following are the core values of the present Dems:

    1.) Will do whatever it takes and expend as much political capital as possible in the never-ending pursuit to make it safe for lesbians to kiss at Disneyland.

    2.) Will do whatever it takes and expend as much political capital to make sure that it is safe for women to suck out the brains of a fetus at 8 months – And have the gov’t pay for it.

    3.) Will do whatever it takes and expend as much political capital to make sure that all adults and children will have to wear bicycle helmets, not drink sugar infused soft drinks, and make sure to charge illegal alien’s kids the same tuition as in-state citizens.and much less than out of state Americans.

    Or, to paraphrase a famous aphorism:

    The difference between a liberal and conservative: A liberal will give a starving man a fish as long as he is a gay, illegal alien, while the conservative will charge the man the free market price for the fish, since there is no free lunch.

    And this ladies and germs, is why we are a freakin’ laughingstock.

    Thank you worthless baby boomers…the horror that has come to pass is that this generation is in charge.

    Clinton, bush, Obama…..utterly useless, useless, useless.

    For the secret and overriding mantra of this generation is to not get caught…and if so deny, lie, blame, obfuscate, bullshit.

    “I did not have sex with that woman….”

    “We know without a doubt that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction…..”

    “Larry Summers has done a heckuva job…..oops pun intended…”

    Look no further than the insipid, inane juvenile dreck that most of the right wingers on this blog (the commenters, not JJ or Doug M.) post.

    If we cut $250 billion a year from the Defense Depart. for the next 10 years, our society will blossom again….which leaves the paltry sum of 3/4 of a trillion left to defend the good ol’ U.S of A…..or more than everyone else combined.

    But will this ever happen? Are we dooming the nation’s future to never ending budget busting defense spending?

    Do any of you dolts out there really believe an existential threat exists to justify starving our discretionary budget in exchange for bloated defense spending on two wars which have weakened and not strengthened our homeland security?

    Read this from that noted socialist Marxist, hate america first soldier Doug MacArthur:

    “Talk of imminent threat to our national security through the application of external force is pure nonsense…. Indeed, it is a part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear. While such an economy may produce a sense of seeming prosperity for the moment, it rests on an illusionary foundation of complete unreliability and renders among our political leaders almost a greater fear of peace than is their fear of war.”

    The stupidest comment of the last 50 years was the “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” screed.

    Well, ask yourself this question, as a homeowner, do you go kill termites two blocks away or do you destroy them once they are in your house.

    If you do not have gophers in your yard, do you go to your neighbors house and kill theirs? or be vigilant that your own yard is not threatened?

    Do you spend a trillion dollars in Afghanistan or do you make sure that every bag, parcel, ship container and passenger are screened for weapons, bombs, bio agents, dirty bombs etc.?

    I mean how many friggin’ times do we cut taxes for the idiot rich and expect the tidal wave of revenue (which never comes) to come?

    OK, no doubt some moron will defend the tax cuts, but riddle me this as**ho%les, Why are we in a depression if these tax cuts (which are still n effect dipshi%ts) are so salutary?

    Maybe its the fact that they don’t work???????????????

  6. Pete says:

    Listen Q, mostly I agree with you. Yet, your screed about tax cuts not working reveals your lack of knowledge of behavioral economics. They can work to incentivize given other cooperating factors; after all if taxing cigarettes is intended to discourage smoking, what logic is there to tax income?

    The whole income tax situation in this country is so twisted that nobody benefits from it except those who can afford high priced tax accountants, lobbyists, and those voters whose votes are being bought with exemptions, deductions and special welfare benefits. So why don’t you consider a consumption tax coupled with abolition of the income tax? No more tax code to use for punishing enemies and rewarding friends.

  7. The Q says:


    The only problem I have with your remarks is that how do you account for all the economic growth we had when marginal rates were 90% (FDR to Ike) – 50% (Reagan).

    And please don’t tell me those rich people never paid taxes back then because that is horseblip.

    Surveys show that those rates resulted in much higher percentages of taxes paid by those in upper income groups than currently.

    In fact, Charles E. Wilson, (“whats good for GM is good for America”) GM’s powerful president a half-century ago, took home $586,100 in 1950, the equivalent of about $4.5 million today. He paid $430,350 of that, or 73.4 percent, in tax.

    Sorry, pete my friend, you’ve bought into the bulshite reagan rant. High marginal tax rates did not affect our growth until Laffer drew up his curve on a napkin then reagan brilliantly sold it.

    As far as consumption tax, thats moronic and here’s why.

    Lets say I make $220K and I save 180K of that, since I am single and 40K will cover my food and rent for the year. Lets say then that we have a flat 10% consumption tax….my effective tax burden is $4000 on 220K income, since I am only taxed on consumption not income (I realize this is terribly simplistic but bear with me).

    Lets say my brother makes 50k and spends $45k on his family, rent etc.

    His tax burden at 10% is $4500, or more than someone who makes 4 times his salary.

    this is completely regressive as you can plainly see.

    Look, whenever you have a republican wanting to switch from taxing incomeand replacing it with a sales/consumption/flat tax, hold on to your wallet if you make less than $100k.

  8. Pete says:

    Consumption tax only applies to new purchases and all services. Used goods are not taxed. Fair Tax proposal pays the 10% consumption tax to all families to cover basic necessities. If you save your big income and don’t spend it, the savings pool grows and puts downward pressure on interest rates. You invest your savings in companies which have investment and growth capital. Your brother has his whole paycheck with NO deductions and a monthly payment to cover the flat tax; whatever it is. Up to the poverty level as decided by heat and Human Services, your brother pays NO tax; not FICA, not income, not death, not capital gains, not alternative minimum, etc.

  9. Pete says:

    Q, if you’re still listening, consider the following article, then make your case for higher taxes. I’m not against taxes; just think a consumption tax is fairer to all, grows the tax base and makes paying taxes truly voluntary as you don’t pay if you don’t consume. Rich people don’t pay income taxes now as they pay capital gains and dividend taxes; they pay accountants to find loopholes, they invest offshore. Imposing penalties for income production through higher taxes will trigger avoidance behavior. That is what I was implying by saying you don’t understand behavioral economics.