The Counter-Narrative Candidate

There is a lot of speculation that Virginia Senator Jim Webb would make an appealing vice-presidential nominee for the Democrats. Some of it emanates from this magazine. It's not hard to see why. Webb is a tough-as-nails Marine veteran of Vietnam who served as a Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, a vociferous enemy of the Iraq War, and an extremely improbable progressive. He's also from the capitol of the Old Confederacy as its 13 electoral votes trend Democratic. What's more, if the nominee is Barack Obama, having a war veteran who also writes paeans to the Scots-Irish cultural tradition round out the ticket creates a juggernaut not seen since Spider-Man joined the New Avengers.

But there's actually a more important way Jim Webb can help elect the Democratic nominee. It has everything to do with the story he can tell at the convention this summer—a story about how the Republican Party abandoned him, and through him, the U.S. military, at a time of war. Call it the Reverse Jeane Kirkpatrick.

On Aug. 20, 1984, Kirkpatrick, the arch anti-communist who served as Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, took the microphone at the GOP convention in Dallas and inaugurated a tradition. Kirkpatrick was, she told her audience, a "lifelong Democrat." The trouble, she had come to realize, was that she was also an American. So in an electrifying speech that was at turns vitriolic and sentimental, she implied very strongly that you couldn't really be both.

When the San Francisco Democrats treat foreign affairs as an afterthought, as they did, they behaved less like a dove or a hawk than like an ostrich -- convinced it would shut out the world by hiding its head in the sand. … They said that saving Grenada from terror and totalitarianism was the wrong thing to do -- they didn't blame Cuba or the communists for threatening American students and murdering Grenadians -- they blamed the United States instead. But then, somehow, they always blame America first.

And on and on in that vein. In one brief speech, Kirkpatrick introduced the world to the phrases "Blame America First" and "San Francisco Democrat"—well understood to mean "Faggot." Subtly, "San Francisco Democrat" had another purpose: it differentiated the alleged radicals in San Francisco from the salt-of-the-earth, America-loving Democrats that could now safely vote for Ronald Reagan.

It was demagogic, incendiary, and ugly. And it was also a masterstroke. The conversion narrative has been a staple in the rise of the New Right since it was new: After all, Reagan himself famously said he never left the Democratic Party, the party left him. But by connecting that sentiment to national security, Kirkpatrick gave her grievance myth a sense of world-historical importance, all before the television cameras. It was a template repeated, among other places, at the 2004 GOP convention by a rabid Zell Miller. Expect Kirkpatrick's bile to be recycled by Joe Lieberman this summer in Minneapolis.

Jim Webb can top it all. He can start out with his family's extremely long history of military service, stretching back countless generations through to Webb's son, a Marine veteran of Fallujah. The Webbs serve when called—but the contract of service is for the country never to call upon men to give their lives in a futile, unnecessary cause. After Vietnam, Webb can say, he became a Republican because the GOP seemed to understand that—and because they also understood that there are certain things that are worth fighting for when viewed through clear, dispassionate eyes.

But somewhere along the line the GOP lost its way. His campaign for Senate in 2006 was predicated on the idea, at least implicitly. As much as he continued to resent John Kerry's outspoken anti-war advocacy in the 1970s, he could nevertheless understand that, this time around, the greater enemy wasn't overzealous opposition to a disastrous war, but the disastrous war itself. And the source of that disaster is in a militarism gone out of control, unmoored from any intelligence conception of the national interest, cheapened by its condescending view of soldiers as mere tools of foreign policy or else as political wedge issues, and indicative of a broader corruption at the heart of an exhausted GOP.

To say that a speech like the one Webb is positioned to deliver would have an impact is to understate matters tremendously. The latest Military Times poll, unscientific as it is, finds tremendous ambivalence with Bush: As many military personnel disapprove of him as approve, and 35 percent of the most pro-war cohort in the U.S. believe the country should never have invaded Iraq. Since the Iraq War began, uniformed identification with the GOP has declined. More anecdotally, signs of military frustration with the GOP show through in unlikely places. In a recent debate on the surge for the influential military blog Small Wars Journal, an Army lieutenant colonel named Gian Gentile called the idea that he didn't act in line with best counterinsurgency practices in 2006 in Iraq a "myth created by the neocon spin machine." Perhaps even more tellingly, Gentile's rhetorical sparring partner, a key aide to Gen. David Petraeus named Col. Pete Mansoor, took umbrage at the association.

None of this is to say that Webb wouldn't be a solid addition to the Democratic ticket. But even if he's not the VP, at the convention, he still has a lot to offer: a counter-narrative that exposes the GOP for damaging national security through its demagogic addiction to pointless militarism.

Editor's Note: This piece has been corrected. Virginia has 13 electoral votes, not 11 as the piece originally stated.