Race & The Virginia Dems’ Race

Not long ago I wrote (here) about the increasingly prominent role race was playing in the the Virginia Democratic primary between liberal northern Virginia lobbyist Harris Miller and Republican (indeed, Reagan’s Navy Secretary)-turned-Democrat James Webb for the right to challenge incumbent Sen. George Allen. Miller, you may recall, had criticized some of Webb’s past (and quite persuasive) criticisms of affirmative action, such as that it is “state-sponsored racism.” Webb replied that affirmative action that gives preferences only to blacks is “divisive.”

“How many prominent Democrats,” I asked, “can you name who will say in public (or have a campaign manager say) that affirmative action based on race is ‘divisive’”?

Not very many. So few, in fact, that Joe Klein has just taken a look at this primary fight and asked, in a Time Magazine web exclusive, “Can the Democrats Handle a Heretic?”

Webb may turn out to be a crucial figure in the recent history of the Democratic Party. For the past 25 years, the tide of political conversions has been running in the opposite direction, from Democrat to Republican, and most of the converts were people like Webb: white, Southern, middle class or poorer, patriotic and, often, with a strong family tradition of military service—in fact, Webb’s son Jim Jr. is a Marine lance corporal headed to Ramadi. Webb’s conversion may be a sign that those sorts of people may now be willing to give the Democrats a second look. A standard-issue Democrat like Miller would probably be cannon fodder for a Republican incumbent like Allen, a party star and probable presidential candidate. It wouldn’t be an easy race for Webb either, but his candidacy might begin to redden the Democrats’ necks in the South….

…. Webb is an outdoorsy hunting-and-fishing environmentalist. He is pro-choice, pro-gay rights. He has expressed nuanced reservations about affirmative action and women in combat in the past and takes careful time to explain his positions now….

I’m not sure that calling affirmative action “state-sponsored racism” is a nuanced reservation, but never mind; this question seems to have become moot in the last few days. Webb may or may not be nuanced, but according to a recent article in the Richmond Times Dispatch (“Webb Shifts Position On Affirmative Action”) he has abandoned even whatever “reservations” he may have had about race-based affirmative action.

U.S. Senate candidate James Webb appeared to contradict his campaign’s earlier assertions about affirmative action as he appealed yesterday for black support.

Webb said during a news conference at the state Capitol that affirmative-action programs should deal exclusively with blacks because of their long history of slavery and discrimination.

Webb, so far as I know, is not a lawyer, but surely he has a lawyer to whom he can turn for advice who can inform him that the Supreme Court has ruled quite clearly that a desire to compensate for past discrimination in the society at large is not a sufficient justification for racial discrimination today.

I find it interesting that Democrats can tolerate and even support a Democratic nominee who opposes abortion, as they are doing with Bob Casey’s campaign to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, but it appears that many, perhaps most, of them regard even a historical, now abandoned devotion to colorblind, non-discriminatory racial equality as, well, a heresy that is beyond the pale.

Say What? (3)

  1. Fred Ray June 5, 2006 at 6:50 pm | | Reply


    Two corrections here:

    Webb has always been a Democrat — the old-fashion Yellow Dog conservative type (so am I). Not many left in the party these days.

    Webb is a lawyer, he attended law school after leaving the Marines.

    I’ve always admired the man, but wouldn’t vote for him as senator in this race.

  2. Steve Applebaugh June 12, 2006 at 5:48 pm | | Reply

    I worked for then Secretary Webb, and I have always admired him as a qualified leader. I truly wish I were a resident of the Commonwealth again so that I could be actively engaged in Mr. Webb’s campaign for Senate. Unlike other responders, I am more on the liberal side of the Democrat Party — I wholly support Jim Webb for the Senate. Virginia, indeed the Nation, would benefit from his integrity in leadership.

    I hope the voters of the Commonwealth will put Jim on the 2006 ballot!

  3. John Rosenberg June 12, 2006 at 7:03 pm | | Reply

    Fred – From recent press coverage it appears that Webb did not remain a Democrat, at least not in any meaningful sense, but actually became a Republican for a number of years. But you’re right about his having gone to law school.

    Steve – I always respected Webb as well. Alas, his becoming a Democratic candidate seems to have “Liebermanized” him, i.e., he has become someone who once upon a time said some courageous truths about racial preferences, but the necessity of appealing to Democratic voters has caused him to change his tune. I don’t doubt that he has many appealing personal and even political qualities, but the truly sad thing is that it is no longer possible to be a Democratic candidate and support colorblind, nondiscriminatory racial equality.

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