Untangling Webb

The Democratic Party is that amazing thing, out of power for six years and yet exhausted. They’re pale, tired and unready. Too bad, since it’s their job to be an alternative, not an embarrassment.

This week Democratic members of Congress and other elected officials unveil their ‘New Direction for America,’ the party’s declaration of its reason for being. It said it stands firmly and unequivocally, without fear or favor, unwaveringly and with grit for . . . reducing the cost of student loans. And making prescription drugs less expensive. And raising the minimum wage. Etc.

This is not a philosophy but a way—an inadequate way, but a way—of hiding the fact that you don’t have a philosophy.

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One can argue about why the Democratic Party no longer seems to have a reason for being. I believe the reason is this: They have achieved what they set out to achieve in 1932, when the modern Democratic Party began. They got what they asked for, achieved what they fought for. They got a big government that offers a wide array of benefits and assistance; they got a powerful federal establishment that collects and dispenses treasure, that assumes societal guidance. They got Social Security and Medicare. They got civil rights (much murky history there, the Southern Democratic lions of the U.S. Senate having retarded the modern civil rights movement from 1940 through 1964; still, by the late ‘60s Democrats came to seem to own the issue, and that hasn’t changed). They got what they stood for. They went on, in the 1970s and ‘80s, to stand for things about which Americans showed they had doubts and ambivalence: abortion, the modernist social agenda. By the time the Democrats ran out that string, they got tagged for the cost of their dreams. Big government is expensive, and the American people didn’t enjoy being forced to pay, through high taxes, for the pleasure of being pushed around.

Also the Democrats, since 1968, hate war. But that’s not really a philosophy. No one likes war, or no one who’s normal. The real difference is between those who think war is bad and must never be fought and those who think it’s bad but sometimes must be fought. The vast majority of voters are in the latter camp.

A second reason the Democratic Party has trouble knowing what it stands for, and thus articulating its purpose, is that it is so spooked by polls, focus groups and past defeats that it’s afraid to take any vivid and differentiating stands, and seeks refuge in the muck of small issues. But small issues are small. And in this case don’t even offer a philosophical pattern. ‘We stand for lower college loan costs and better prescription drug benefits.’ That’s something you’d die on the battlefield for, isn’t it?

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Which gets us to what is being called one of the most interesting races to watch this year, in Virginia, where Reagan-era Navy secretary James Webb last night won the Democratic nomination to run against Republican senator and expected presidential contender George Allen. I like George Allen and I’m a conservative, but in the Reagan administration I admired Jim Webb, and I admire his books, especially ‘Born Fighting.’

On the face of it, the Webb-Allen contest looks like something new. It’s being painted as that, and maybe it is, but I’m not sure.

Mr. Webb is running on his biography. Nothing wrong with that. Lincoln sold Lincoln’s, having his men parade rails he’d supposedly split through the halls of the 1860 Republican Convention. Mr. Webb’s bio is classic conservative: service to country, pride, personal heroism. The combat boots he wore in Vietnam were used as model and inspiration by the sculptor of the statue of the war’s great grunts at the Vietnam memorial. (Mr. Allen often wears cowboy boots. I bet combat boots versus cowboy boots becomes an iconographic signature of the campaign.)

Mr. Webb is an artist (novelist, essayist) and warrior. This is an unusual combination and a beautiful one. But he does not seem to think politically, which can be a drawback when you go into politics.

He is campaigning as the antiwar candidate—he has opposed Iraq since the runup, as Mr. Allen has supported it. But if Mr. Webb is only an antiwar candidate who on other issues—the social issues, taxes—cleaves to standard Democratic positions, then he’s not something new, he’s something old.

Mr. Webb says he is ‘pro-choice’ on abortion, ‘pro-gay rights,’ and ‘pro-Second Amendment.’

I don’t doubt the sincerity of his views. I’ve never met a career military man who was a conservative on social issues. I think they tend to see questions such as abortion and marriage as essentially uninteresting, private and not subject to the movement of machines. (Connected to this, I suspect Mr. Webb will benefit to some degree by the high number of military retirees in Virginia. They’re always assumed to be hawks on Iraq. From personal experience I’d say a high percentage have been dubious about the war, many from the beginning.)

To be an antiwar Democrat who’s a liberal on social issues is not something new in the Democratic Party. It’s the same old same old with a new biography. Or so it seems to me.

It is true that Mr. Webb has said he supports the Second Amendment, and much is being made of this. But that doesn’t strike me as significant, or rather it strikes me as significant only in what it underscores: The Democratic Party has lost on the right to bear arms. They know it. It’s why they don’t speak of gun control anymore on the national stage. It used to be one of their primary issues. They went as far as they could in terms of control—licensing, background checks, etc.—but on what was once their obvious desire to make private gun ownership in America illegal, the Democratic Party has, in the past dozen years, quietly, almost soundlessly, caved in.

That leaves taxes. From his Web site it’s not clear where Mr. Webb stands. He wants our tax system to be ‘fair,’ but in no way does he wave the anti-costly-government, antitax banner.

Mr. Webb has interesting and important things to say about the war, and we’ll find out if that is the No. 1 issue in Virginia, and how Virginians come down on it, in the coming months. But in terms of domestic policy, of all other nonwar policy, he sounds to me like Nancy Pelosi with medals.

At the end of the day elections are not only about personalities, not even primarily about them, but about issues. Mr. Webb’s issues seem standard-issue.

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Let me close with something that I thought had the sound of the future in it. I was at a Manhattan Institute lunch this week at which Rudy Giuliani spoke. He impressed the audience of 200 or so, which was not surprising as it was his kind of group, urban-oriented thinkers drawn not to ideology but to what works and will help in the world. (I am a longtime supporter.) At one point he was asked about national education policy. Mr. Giuliani said he wanted more national emphasis on choice. He spoke of it as a civil rights issue, and told stories to illustrate the point.

Then—this is the part with the sound of the future in it—he laid out the reasons both parties have failed to push the ball forward. The Democrats fear the teachers unions and the educational establishment. The Republicans are heavily represented in and by suburban and country areas, which tend to have good schools, tend to be happy with them, and are wary of a movement they fear might take something from them. And so the students who need the most help, city kids who would benefit the most from creativity, are held captive to a failed public-education monopoly.

His candor was refreshing. Mr. Giuliani’s approach was nonpartisan in the best sense—i.e., not fuzzy but frank. It wasn’t Public schools want to be free; it was This is what will help, this is why it isn’t happening, this is why we have to make it happen. That didn’t sound like the same old same old. It didn’t sound like the past.