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Ixnay on the Ebbway

By Dan Johnson

"Ixnay on the Ebbway"

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By Kathy G.

First off, many thanks to Matt for asking me to guest blog. Matt has long been one of my role models as a blogger and I’m honored that he invited me here. If you want to read more of my stuff, you can visit my own blog, The G Spot.

Now on to my first post here, which I warn you will be looonnnggg.

A number of people I greatly respect have been touting Virginia senator James Webb as Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick. Indeed, more than a few of my liberal male friends seem positively smitten with the man.

But I say, enough with the mancrushes already! It’s true that Webb, a Vietnam vet who’s been decorated with with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, the
Silver Star and the Navy Cross, is undeniably butch. But there are a number of reasons why he would be a terrible vice presidential pick.

Back in February, Ezra Klein made the case against Webb, and the reasons Ezra gave then still hold. For one thing, if President Obama wants to get anything done, he’ll need a filibuster-proof majority in the senate. It would not be wise for him to choose a red state senator, because who knows if another Democrat could be elected to that seat? Also, as Ezra argued, the things that make Webb valuable as a "gadfly senator," such as his "brashness" and his "willingness to push the conversation forward," would be a bad match for the vice presidency, which would require him to "constantly watch his mouth" and not say anything that conflicts with the president’s agenda.

All that is true,  but the reasons why Webb would be a poor choice go way beyond that. Even Alex Massie, who strongly supports Webb for veep, has admitted that the man is "hopeless on the campaign trail":

You could see that it
pained him to even ask people to vote for him and he plainly had little
patience for the self-abasement and daily humiliations of life on the
campaign trail. He is not a natural baby-kisser. My sense – from his
own writing and what I’ve read about him – is that he is also
difficult, stubborn, awkward, cussed and not to be trifled with. these
too may not be attributes best-suited to a national campaign in the
modern political era.

Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? But that is actually the least of my worries about Webb. No, what I worry about is the fact that Webb basically became a Democrat the day before yesterday, and he has a long history of holding some pretty wingnutty opinions and making some fairly outrageous and offensive statements. To quote a Rolling Stone profile of the man, just a few years ago he was saying that "Liberals were ‘cultural Marxists,’ and ‘the upper crust of academia and the
pampered salons of Hollywood’ were a fifth column waging war on
American traditions."

In 2000, Webb opined that affirmative action was "state-sponsored racism"; that same year he endorsed the ultra-conservative Republican George Allen for the senate. In 2004, Webb wrote an op-ed for USA Today arguing that John Kerry "deserved condemnation" for his opposition to the Vietnam War (to be fair, in the op-ed Webb is also critical of George Bush; but then again, in the same piece Webb also takes a swipe at the "liberal media"). Troublingly, he gave this glowing endorsement to Mark Moyar’s uber-wingnutty "revisionist" history of the Vietnam War, Triumph Forsaken, which was published in October 2006:

I know of no scholar more dedicated to bringing a thorough and accurate portrayal of America’s involvement in Vietnam than Mark Moyar. Everyone who is interested in a full picture of that oft misunderstood war should be grateful for his effort.

But as Rick Perlstein has demonstrated in a devastating review, the Moyar book is dreadful piece of far-right propaganda posing as history. What it basically is, is a book-length elaboration of the "stab-in-the-back" myth: i.e., Moyar argues that the Vietnam War was winnable, and that only the treachery of liberal elites in the media and the government prevented America from achieving "victory."

Am I the only person who finds it deeply disturbing that any elected Democratic official would give an unqualified endorsement to a book like this? Let alone someone who has received such adoring coverage from so many liberal (male) journalists, and is being touted for vice president. And remember, the Moyar book is not a distant relic, either — it was published less than two years ago, at around the same time when Webb was running for senate.

I think I’ve given more than enough very good reasons why Jim Webb should not be Barack Obama’s running mate. But there is yet one more reason to oppose his elevation to vice president, and it’s the one that I consider to be the most important one of all: his truly horrible record on women’s issues.

In 1979, in an infamous article in The Washingtonian magazine called "Women Can’t Fight," Webb argued that women were biologically unsuited to combat and didn’t belong in the military academies. He said that the mere presence of women was "poisoning" the environment for male cadets. He also

declared that no senior female in a leadership position at the academy won her rank by merit, thereby impugning the accomplishments of every female midshipman and throwing fuel on the smoldering resentments of a vocal minority of disgruntled midshipmen.

Webb’s writings on women did a hell of a lot of damage. It gave invaluable ammunition to the enemies of women’s presence in the military and helped stall and perhaps even roll back women’s progress there. Kathleen Murray, a 1984 academy graduate who went on to become a commander in the Navy, said of Webb’s screed: "This article was brandished repeatedly. [Men] quoted and used it as an
excuse to mistreat us." Her observation is confirmed by this post, which contains devastating testimony by women in the military about the effect Webb’s writings had. For instance, here is what Commander Jennifer Brooks, USN(retired) had to say:

I was 19 years old and in my second year at the Academy when the
Webb article came out. I was devastated to be told by a war hero that
the Academy should be shut down rather than accept me, and that my very
presence was responsible for the degradation of the military. As a best
selling author, James Webb knew the power of words, and to describe the
Naval Academy as ‘a horny woman’s dream’ was inexcusable. My mother
read that.

I joined the Navy to serve my country. It was unbelievably
demoralizing to be painted as a pampered slut who was taking up
classroom space and pre-destined to endanger the lives of the brave
young men around her.

You may say, well, that was way back in the 80s and late 70s. He’s changed since then, right? But that is not exactly clear. At a 1991 convention of naval aviators called Tailhook, 83 women were reported to have been sexually harassed or assaulted by military personnel. From the beginning, Webb’s concern for the victims was merely perfunctory. But he gave many speeches and wrote many articles vociferously defending the accused. In a 1992 article in the New York Times, he called the investigation of Tailhook a "witch hunt." In a 1997 article he wrote for the conservative Weekly Standard, he was highly critical of what he termed "ever-expanding sexual mixing" in the military and he referred to feminist efforts to improve the status of women in the military as merely "salving the egos of a group of never-satisfied social engineers."

And yes, once again he brought up Tailhook, and once again he showed himself more concerned with attacking feminists than with securing justice for the victims: "Events such as the 1991 Tailhook debacle have been seized upon and used by feminists to attack the military culture and bring about major concessions." Indeed, as late as the time this book was published (2004), Webb, according to the author, "persists in refusing to blame the Navy and Marine Corps officers who participated in the abuses of Tailhook, who failed to raise a hand to stop them and stonewalled the investigation that followed."

To be fair, Webb, who is pro-choice, has kinda sorta apologized for his past writings and statements on women in the military. He termed the infamous Washingtonian  article an "overreach." Um, that’s putting it mildly.

Look, I accept that on some issues red state Democrats are going to be more conservative than I would like. And there are some things I like about Webb — he’s made valuable contributions on issues like Iraq, veterans’ benefits, prisons, and  economic inequality. If I lived in Virginia, I’d vote for him. But Webb also has a history of colossally bad judgment on many issues, especially gender issues. (And — hello! — he has huge paper trail documenting all of his bad judgments and ideological flip-flops. Can you imagine the fun the Republicans would have with that? Every other minute Webb would be "clarifying" or "explaining" or "apologizing for" some thing  he’d written or said long ago. Just his presence on the ticket would throw the Obama campaign seriously off-message).

Above all, though, I am very troubled by the idea that a man who has held such sexists views, and has done so much to damage the cause of
gender equality in the military, would be one heartbeat away from the presidency. I do not think Webb is at all trustworthy on women’s issues, and women’s issues are very important to me and to millions of others besides. I think it’s essential that any Democratic president or vice president have a good record on women’s, civil rights, and labor issues. It’s not just that women, African-Americans, and unions are the core constituencies of the Democratic party. It’s that advancing the causes of racial, gender, and economic equality are the among the most important moral and political issues of our time. These are core values to me and millions of other Democrats, and elevating a man who has been so awful on one of them to the second most powerful position in the party is completely unacceptable.

Stepping away from all that high-minded rhetoric, I’ll add that, in practical terms, selecting Webb would be a slap in the
face to the Hillary Clinton supporters. I’m not saying that Obama has to pick
Hillary as veep (and indeed, I think that would be a bad idea). I’m not
even saying that he needs to pick a woman.

But Hillary was the first woman to ever have a serious shot at the
presidency, and she came so close. So the Hillary supporters (of whom,
to be clear, I am not one) will feel frustrated enough that their
candidate didn’t win. But for Obama to choose — out of all the
well-qualified candidates out there — the one person who has a really awful record on gender issues would be like rubbing salt in the
wound. It would be seen as a big "screw you" to Hillary’s supporters
and to feminists in general.

How would Obama supporters feel if their man lost a closely
contested fight, and then Hillary turned around and picked as veep
someone who, into the 1990s, was an outspoken critic of
civil rights? It would seem tone-deaf and incredibly insensitive, to
say the least.

In addition, I just don’t buy many of the pro-Webb arguments. One argument I hear is that Webb would be great because Obama needs "credibility" on foreign policy. But as Mori Dinauer has pointed out, this may "just underscore the notion that Obama is somehow weak on foreign policy."

Then there’s the notion that selecting Webb will buy Obama some white working class cred. I have multiple problems with this one. First of all, the notion, which some lefty males of my acquaintance really seem to buy into, that Webb is some pure tribune of salt-of-the-earth working class authenticity is highly questionable. Webb’s father was a career Air Force officer; his family was not wealthy but certainly was comfortably middle class.

Secondly, the idea that putting a white Southern military dude on the ticket will somehow win Obama white working class votes he wouldn’t get otherwise is highly problematic. It reminds me of the way I and my fellow liberals thought that nominating John Kerry might win over the working class, ’cause they love military heroes, right?  Besides, the idea that Webb would attract white working class support is not well-supported. In 2006, Webb barely eeked out a victory against George Allen, a deeply damaged candidate. And it was Allen, not Webb, who overwhelmingly won both the white vote (especially the white male vote) and the votes of the non-college educated. There is no evidence that Webb is especially popular with white working class voters.

Finally, as Josh Patashnik has noted, there is little evidence that vice presidential candidates affect election outcomes. People tend to vote based on the top of the ticket, period. As someone else (I can’t remember who) said, Barack Obama’s running mate could be a sixpack of beer and it still wouldn’t bring him any white working class votes that he wouldn’t get otherwise. If he wants to win more white working class support, Obama’s best bet is to give more emphasis to bread-and-butter economic issues. The good news is that Obama doesn’t have to do especially well with the white working class vote. Pollster Ruy Texeira believes that Obama can lose the white working class vote by 10 to 12 points and still win the election.

Given Webb’s shaky  campaigning skills, his well-documented history of extremely poor political judgments, his johnny-come-lately status as a Democrat, his questionable ability to attract votes, and above all, his horrible record on gender, I do not think James Webb would be a wise choice for vice president. It’s interesting to me that, though I don’t know of a single woman who thinks Webb should be Obama’s running mate, I know many men who positively swoon over the man.

To the legions of Webb fanboys on the left, I’ll say this: dudez, this race is not about your illusions about how an Obama-Webb ticket could somehow miraculously heal centuries’ worth of racial wounds, or your fantasies about how Webb could somehow bring that all-important white working class male back to the fold. Most especially, it’s not about the choice of the ultra-manly Webb as a vicarious endorsement of your masculinity.

Selecting a vice president is about choosing someone who would not detract from the president’s message and agenda, who is well-qualified to be president, and who upholds the basic values of the Democratic party. James Webb is not this person, but there are plenty other people out there who fit the bill.

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