Opinion

America’s most disappointing senator

W. James Antle III Managing Editor

Is there a Senate race in the country that is as competitive yet totally boring as the one now slogging its way to a dreary conclusion in Virginia?

What could have been a clash of the titans with former Governors George Allen and Tim Kaine duking it out has instead been an uninspiring contest between “Generic Republican” and “Generic Democrat.”

Even the gaffes this year have been uninteresting, with Kaine appearing to open the door to a tax increase on the poor during a debate and Allen refraining from giving the Washington Post bulletin board material by using purported ethnic slurs on film.

It’s tempting to blame Allen and Kaine for turning what ought to be an epic battle into a cure for insomnia. But the real culprit is the retiring incumbent, a man who could be described as America’s most disappointing senator.

Jim Webb is many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Webb was a Marine who boxed Oliver North and served in Vietnam. He churned out interesting, if occasionally overwritten, books. “Fields of Fire” was one of the best ever written about Vietnam. And before he became a politician, he said things about liberals that make “Macaca” sound like a term of endearment.

“Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” he once told a radio interviewer of Hanoi Jane. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to watch her slit her wrist.”

Bill Clinton could kiss Webb’s ass too. “Every time I see him salute a Marine,” he said of our smarmy 42nd president, “it infuriates me.”

When Clinton finally left office in 2001, Webb gave him a goodbye kick in the pants on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page: “It is a pleasurable experience to watch Bill Clinton finally being judged, even by his own party, for the ethical fraudulence that has characterized his entire political career.”

For over 20 years, Webb said he wouldn’t shake John Kerry’s hand over the Massachusetts senator’s anti-Vietnam activities. He resigned as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy because the Gipper wasn’t spending enough on national defense.

Webb extolled the virtues of Southern culture as “the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether” and the biggest “obstacle to the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness.”

He even honored the Confederate war dead: “I am not here to apologize for why they fought, although modern historians might contemplate that there truly were different perceptions in the North and South about those reasons, and that most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery.”

Webb called affirmative action “a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.”

Yet once in office, Webb was — with just a handful of defections — pretty much a party-line Democrat. He made his peace with political correctness, supporters of racial preferences, and a permissive immigration policy.

The erstwhile populist voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

On the major issues of the last four years, Webb voted in lockstep with Barack Obama on the health care bill Virginia took the lead in fighting and the stimulus package that borrowed $1 trillion to produce barely 2 percent economic growth two years later.

The highlight of Webb’s Senate career was probably when he had a staffer bring a loaded gun into the Russell Building.

It has been said that Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked like Irving Kristol but voted like Walter Mondale. Jim Webb wrote like Pat Buchanan but votes like Harry Reid.

The handwriting was on the wall in 2006, when Webb ran as the candidate of underwear-clad netroots bloggers he once would have disdained. He campaigned with Clinton and Kerry. He apologized for politically incorrect comments he had made about quotas and immigration.

But even then, the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson held out hope that Webb was “the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland.”

As late as that campaign, Webb supported capital gains tax cuts (“in case a redneck wants to sell his stocks,” Ferguson explained at the time) and was open to voting to confirm conservative judges.

The initial reason for Webb’s defection from the Republican Party — he had endorsed both Allen and George W. Bush in 2000 — was the Iraq war.

Webb advised Bush and Allen that invading Iraq would empower Iran and lead to a costly occupation. Hard to see how he was wrong on either score.

But that’s no reason to embrace the entire Democratic Party platform, especially considering that Kerry, Reid, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Steny Hoyer, and Dick Gephardt all voted for the war.

It was probably a bit much to hope that Webb would turn out to be an antiwar Zell Miller. He was never a partisan Republican or conventional movement conservative. But his voting record was arguably less independent than Jon Tester’s, and indisputably less interesting than Tester’s haircut.

At least Webb was too bored with the Senate to bother running for a second term, which speaks well of him.

It’s just disappointing that the author of “Born Fighting” spent the better part of six years retreating from the views that helped make him a compelling political figure in the first place.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.