The Next Fight

Article excerpt

Byline: Zev Chafets

A conservative Democrat reassesses the political battlefield.

On Veterans Day a crowd of 300 or so Virginians gathered in a tent on the grounds of the estate of Gen. George C. Marshall. They were there to commemorate what they still regard as their unappreciated service in Vietnam, a war gone bad through no fault of their own. Many arrived dressed in the dark business suits of late-middle-age prosperity. A few wore faded combat fatigues. One man sported a leather flight jacket with a TONKIN GULF YACHT CLUB decal on the right sleeve. VFW and American Legion caps covered bald heads and crowned gray ponytails.

A high-school color guard ushered in a platform's worth of dignitaries, including the featured speaker, Virginia Sen. James Webb. The vets stood at attention and sang along with a local band that played the various service anthems. Webb joined in when the band struck up the Marine Corps hymn. The senator is 64, the same age as most of his comrades in arms, but he has the posture of a midshipman, a shock of red hair, and the face of a pugnacious baby that give him the youthful look of a man still looking forward.

The specific direction Webb regards as forward is a matter of considerable speculation. His Senate term ends in two years, and, in the general uncertainty engendered by the midterm elections, he has taken to telling inquisitive reporters that he hasn't yet decided if he will run for reelection. "I'm not saying I'm not going to," he says. It is an atypically coy evasion for a man with a reputation for blunt speaking.

What Webb does in two years will certainly affect Virginia politics. How he positions himself in the meantime may have broader significance as well: Webb could serve as a model for 10 other Democratic senators who face reelection battles in states like Virginia, where unstinting support of the Obama agenda could be a recipe for early retirement.

Republicans also are gaming how conservative Democrats like Webb will figure into the new calculus. "The big buzz in D.C. is whether Obama tacks to the left to appease his base or moves toward the center to appeal to moderates," says Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. "The reality is he doesn't have a choice. Not if he wants to actually get anything done in the next two years. There is a bloc of 11 [Democratic] senators who will be up for reelection from conservative states, and they are likely to establish a formidable group that will block any progressive legislation that is high on the liberal agenda."

Webb's Veterans Day remarks were brief and unadorned by the grandiosity displayed by the average political orator on patriotic occasions. Then again, Webb is not an average politician. He grew up as a peripatetic Air Force brat, aced Annapolis, and led a rifle platoon, and later a company, in Vietnam. In a year of combat, he was wounded twice, received a silver star, two bronze stars and the Navy Cross, a decoration second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. There were brave men in the tent on Veterans Day that morning, but none--not even the rear admiral who preceded Webb on the dais--had a better war record. It gave him the authority to end his talk with a plea to the audience to remember that some of the Vietnamese refugees in Virginia also fought on the American side and deserve acknowledgment (Webb is married to a Vietnamese woman and speaks the language). "I've never heard a politician say something like that," an American-born Vietnamese journalist covering the event told me.

After the final benediction, Webb spent some time shaking hands. He is a notoriously bad campaigner, impatient and reticent, but here he was in his element. I found myself standing next to a thin man named Steve who had an I SERVED: VIETNAM badge pinned to his V-neck sweater. Together we watched the senator work the tent. "What do you think of him?" I asked.

"Jim Webb is something else," he replied. …