Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why Jim Webb Won't Lead an Independent Movement

When a presidential candidate whose campaign is going nowhere formally withdraws from the race, his or her announcement always produces an audible expression of relief in the press corps. Few circumstances produce human discomfort quite like finding oneself in the company of someone who appears to blithely deny an obvious and unwelcome truth, and the conventions of American elections require a certain pretense of fair-mindedness in news coverage which compels reporters to mute their dismissal of the unrealistic ambitions of also-rans. The scorn directed at no-hope candidates who stumble around the stage of a debate, as Lincoln Chafee did last week, often represents a boiling-over of simmering media contempt directed at people whose unjustified pursuit of high office seems only to be wasting everybody's time.

Today, former Virginia senator Jim Webb announced that he was abandoning his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Since Webb was a thoroughly unsuccessful candidate with no public support or serious source of funds, little apparent dedication to campaigning, and a visibly ill-fitting relationship with the rest of the Obama-era Democratic Party (to which Webb himself referred in his press conference this afternoon), his withdrawal represented an acknowledgment of reality that slightly enhanced the overall level of logical consonance in the world, and—perhaps for that reason—he seems to have attracted more media attention getting out of the race than he did getting in. Webb also managed to perk up a few ears by implying that he would consider leaving the Democratic Party to run as an independent candidate in the general election, mentioning the substantial fraction of voters who identify with neither party and suggesting that Democratic and Republican nomination contests could leave a number of voters dissatisfied with their electoral options next November.

There are many reasons why an independent or third-party candidacy is unlikely to succeed. Most nominal independents are in fact "closet partisans" who are more likely to support their favored major party than defect to an alternative. The "spoiler effect" in winner-take-all elections dissuades voters from abandoning a Democratic or Republican candidate for fear that they will merely help elect the opposition major-party nominee. Independent or moderate voters who don't agree with the doctrine of either major party don't necessarily agree with each other either, making it difficult to unite them around a single policy platform.

Putting those obstacles aside for the moment, however, Webb seems like a particularly unpromising candidate to lead such an effort. His independence is not merely partisan or ideological—which could link him politically to millions of other Americans—but personal: a caucus of one. He appears to hold a congenital resistance to the process of collective accommodation or collaboration, projecting an odd, prickly intensity that is a very rare quality among successful politicians.

Webb's failure to fit the usual political mold has, along with his impressive biography, worked to his advantage at times in the past, but he seems out of place in a public competition that requires constant glad-handing and sustained exposure to the press; given a unique opportunity to introduce himself to voters in last week's Democratic debate, Webb spent much of his time complaining about the lack of attention that he received from the moderators. Considered a loner in the Senate (which he departed after a single term), Webb doesn't appear likely to serve as the architect of a larger political movement. His mix of policy views and tenure as a member of both parties give him some credibility as the carrier of a pox-on-both-houses message, but his personality does not suggest likely success either as a candidate or a potential president.