Candidate Evaluations: Jim Webb

by Benjamin Studebaker

Jim Webb has spun his way into the presidential race, so here’s his evaluation. I’ll be looking at Webb’s background, policy history, and explicit statements to determine whether or not he would make a good president. I won’t be paying attention to electability or likeability, as is often common elsewhere on the web.

If you like candidate evaluations, there are more:

This is Jim Webb:

Webb got his undergraduate degree from the US Naval Academy and fought as a captain in the Vietnam War. After the war, he got a law degree from Georgetown. Webb speaks Vietnamese, and his son Jimmy fought in the Iraq War. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Webb worked as a staffer for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the naval academy. He wrote an article in 1979 in which he claimed several bizarre things. He said a number of very sexist things:

…men fight better. We can try to intellectualize that reality away, and layer it with debates on role conditioning versus natural traits, but it manifests itself in so many ways that it becomes foolish to deny it. When the layerings of centuries of societal development are stripped away, a basic human truth remains: Man must be more aggressive in order to perpetuate the human race. Women don’t rape men, and it has nothing to do, obviously, with socially induced differences…

…American men are tough and violent. When they are lured or drafted from their homes and put through the dehumanization of boot camp, then thrown into an operating combat unit, they don’t get any nicer, either.I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.

He also claimed he was a Thatcher supporter:

Lest I be understood too quickly, I should say that I believe most of what has happened over the past decade in the name of sexual equality has been good. It is good to see women doctors and lawyers and executives. I can visualize a woman President. If I were British, I would have supported Margaret Thatcher. But no benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat.

And he claimed that Albert Einstein would make a bad military commander because he can’t yo-yo:

If academics were the test of leadership, Albert Einstein, who couldn’t even work a yo-yo, would have been a general…

Suffice it to say, Jim Webb was not ahead of his time. But this was almost 40 years ago. What’s Webb done since then?

From 1984 to 1987, Webb was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. In 1987, he was promoted to Secretary of the Navy by President Reagan. In the mid to late 80’s, Reagan began reducing navy spending. Webb resigned in protest in 1988. In his diary, Reagan wrote:

Present Sec. Webb resigned over budget cuts. I don’t think Navy was sorry to see him go.

Webb spent the 90’s making films and writing books. In 2003, Webb opposed the Iraq War:

…those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade…the Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam…In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.

In 2004, he savaged Bush over Iraq:

Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence.

His opposition to the Iraq War increased his popularity among democrats, and in 2006 was narrowly elected to the senate. He did not seek re-election in 2012. As a senator, Webb took some good positions:

  • He supported the stimulus package.
  • He backed gay civil unions in 2006 and opposed a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
  • He recognized climate change and consistently voted in support of policies that would confront it. But he also opposed expanding the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
  • He voted for Obamacare.
  • He supported the estate tax.
  • He consistently opposed the Iraq War.
  • He voted against a balanced budget amendment.

There were, however, a couple hiccups:

  • He opposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 because he believed we needed to prioritize border security.
  • He’s frequently opposed gun control.
  • He continued to defend the Vietnam War and supported potential military intervention in Iran.

In 2007, Webb said the following about Vietnam:

I may be one of the few people in the Congress who still strongly supports the Vietnam War. I believe that the logic for the Vietnam War was sustainable…

On Iran, he said:

The United States and Israel must keep the rest of the world focused on this, and should not rule out pre-emptive military strikes if there is evidence that Iran is building a weapon.

Webb opposes the administration’s current negotiations with Iran.

Webb is wrong about Vietnam for the same reasons he’s right about Iraq–the underlying ideological tensions in the country were bound to recur as soon as we left, and the side that was stronger (the communists in Vietnam, the Shiites in Iraq) were bound to end up dominating the government.

On Iran, Webb is wrong because a nuclear armed Iran is no substantive threat to the United States or Israel because both countries possess strong nuclear deterrents of their own. This makes an Iranian first strike a suicidal move.

That said, Webb did get Libya right:

…we know we don’t like the Gaddafi regime, but we do not have a picture of who the opposition movement really is.

As it turned out, the opposition movement consisted primarily of Cyrenaican separatists and religious extremists.

So on foreign policy, Webb is clearly better than Clinton but not as good as Sanders.

Since leaving the senate, Webb’s come out with some new positions. He’s now expressing reservations about Obamacare. He’s against income tax hikes on the rich but supports increases in the capital gains rate. He recently made an ambivalent statement about the confederate flag that could be construed as something of a defense:

This is an emotional time and we all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War. The Confederate Battle Flag has wrongly been used for racist and other purposes in recent decades. It should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us.

But we should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, including slave holders in the Union Army from states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, and that many non-slave holders fought for the South. It was in recognition of the character of soldiers on both sides that the federal government authorized the construction of the Confederate Memorial 100 years ago, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.

This is a time for us to come together, and to recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect.


Jim Webb’s record is a bit messy. On foreign policy, he’s better than O’Malley and Clinton (both of whom supported the Iraq War), but he’s not as good as Chafee or Sanders (both of whom support negotiations with Iran). Webb has no record of supporting austerity, but this may be because he’s never been a governor. On many issues, Webb takes contradictory stances that render him unpredictable. He’s far too inconsistent to get my support.

If you go on explicit statements alone, Webb is weaker than Clinton and O’Malley on economic and social policy, but because Clinton and O’Malley have consistently governed to the right of their rhetoric, you could make the argument that Webb is really about the same as both of them. So I think that because of his opposition to the Iraq War, Webb is the third best candidate, a short distance behind Chafee and quite a ways behind Sanders. But if you picked Clinton or O’Malley over Webb, that would be defensible (but I would still give you a very hard time for failing to pick Sanders).