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Jim Webb enters the Democratic race, hoping to challenge Clinton and Sanders

Jim Webb
Jim Webb
Mark Wilson / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. Former Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) announced Thursday afternoon that he would run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
  2. Webb is presenting himself as a bipartisan problem-solver, while critiquing the Democratic establishment (and, by implication, Hillary Clinton) on both economic and foreign policy issues from the left.
  3. But his campaign faces a tough uphill battle, since Hillary Clinton is dominating in establishment support, and Bernie Sanders has emerged as her main liberal challenger.

A bipartisan background

Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, worked as a congressional staffer, and then in President Reagan's Defense Department, where he rose to become Secretary of the Navy. He resigned from that position in 1988 in protest of budget cuts. Afterward, he worked as an author and a filmmaker, and went back and forth between supporting candidates from both major parties.

But Webb's frustration with President George W. Bush's war in Iraq eventually led him to choose a side — and he ran for a US Senate seat in Virginia as a Democrat in 2006. He won a narrow victory over incumbent Senator George Allen (R), helping the party retake the chamber that year. After serving out his term, though, Webb decided not to run again in 2012.

A critique of the Democratic Party on economics and foreign policy

In a video announcing an exploratory committee last year, Webb mentioned poverty and stagnation affecting Americans from the inner cities to the Appalachian mountains, while mentioning that the average CEO now made greater than 300 times what his worker made. "The inequalities between top and bottom in our country are greater than at any time in the last hundred years," Webb said. "We cannot sit idly by and suggest that such economic power divisions are permanent."

He went on: "The Democratic Party used to be the place where people like this could come not for a handout but for a respectable handshake. Good full-time jobs, quality education, health care they could afford, and the vital overriding reassurance that we are all in this together and that the system is not rigged in favor of one group of people and against another. We can get there again."

In an interview with the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, Webb elaborated on his critique of the party on economic issues:

"There is a big tendency among a lot of Democratic leaders to feed some raw meat to the public on smaller issues that excite them, like the minimum wage, but don't really address the larger problem," Webb said. "A lot of the Democratic leaders who don't want to scare away their financial supporters will say we're going to raise the minimum wage, we're going do these little things, when in reality we need to say we're going to fundamentally change the tax code so that you will believe our system is fair."

Webb's skepticism of military interventionism will also be a major element of his campaign. In last year's video, he critiqued "ill-considered foreign ventures that have drained trillions from our economy and brought instability instead of deterrence." The implied contrast to Hillary Clinton, who was a key proponent of Obama's 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan and proposed arming Syrian rebels, is clear.

Webb elaborated on this in an interview with Vox earlier this year. "My biggest concern with the Obama administration has been with the decision, unilaterally, to use force," he said. "In particular, Libya is a classic example that shows how uncontrolled the administration has become."

Nearly impossible odds

In last year's video, Webb acknowledged that he's facing "what many commentators consider nearly impossible odds." That assessment hasn't changed since. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has a lead in the polls, and will likely win the support of nearly every major Democratic party figure and interest group. And it's Bernie Sanders who's emerged as her most formidable challenger so far.

Webb is hoping that his long record of bipartisanship, combined with a potent policy critique of the party's dependence on special interests and its foreign policy orientation, will convince both moderate and liberal Democratic voters to gravitate to him instead.

"With enough financial support to conduct a first-class campaign, I have no doubt that we can put these issues squarely before the American people and gain their support," Webb wrote on his new campaign website. "Serious campaigning will begin very soon."