Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb displayed his military-like efficiency during an Iowa swing at the end of last week, marching through an impressive and diverse number of events throughout the state from Thursday through Sunday. Among other events, he met with Democrats in Council Bluffs, spoke at the Polk County Democrats’ fundraiser, toured a veterans museum and factory in Waterloo and an ethanol plant in Mason City, visited a Vietnamese community event back in Des Moines, and headlined a fundraiser for Democrats in Mason City. It was his first Iowa expedition this year, having done a three-day tour back in 2014. For the most part, however, he left some Iowans wanting to know more, with perhaps too-efficient speeches at two events Starting Line attended.
At the Polk County Democrats fundraising dinner on Friday, Webb spoke to the crowd before Martin O’Malley. He opened with some funny and personal anecdotes, mentioning his time living in Omaha during high school and a boxing coach who mentored him there. After relating some of his and his family members’ military backgrounds, he talked in broad terms about what he saw as the country’s biggest problems.
“We have had an economic recovery since the great recession that’s only helped a partial element in our society,” Webb said about the ever-growing wage gap in America. He also urged the need to “have a new doctrine that articulates for us the national security policy of the United States,” in order to reshape the military and give it better goals. On that topic he recalled his early opposition to the Iraq War. He also spoke about his work on criminal justice reform, and warned Democrats that Republicans like Rand Paul were taking the lead on the issue when the Democratic Party should own it as their own.
It was about a fifteen minute speech in all (which you can watch here on C-SPAN), though it didn’t have the overarching structure and narrative that O’Malley’s longer one did following him. Nearly everyone Starting Line spoke with thought O’Malley impressed more, but several noted that Webb’s speech had a little more substance on certain issues. Mostly, people still wanted to know more.
“Once in a while he shows a little bit of personality,” said Monica McCarthy, a Democratic activist from Union County, who felt Webb recounting the story of losing his bags at the Omaha airport made him a little more relatable. “On TV he sometimes comes off a little stiff, and I think that’s the military background.” McCarthy wanted to learn more, saying it’ll be a while before she forms a real opinion.
Others found things they liked in the speech, even if the delivery wasn’t as sharp as O’Malley’s. “He talked about the dry, boring things in a really dry, boring way,” said Polk County Democrat Jordan Murphy. “I was actually really impressed by the substance of it. I like Webb’s military background – the Democratic Party needs someone who brings that perspective … I was impressed by Webb. I had low expectations, but he exceeded them.”
“I think that the level of excitement in the room wasn’t quite as high as for O’Malley,” said Nathan Erickson. He felt the policy was good, but that Webb might need “to connect more with the general values that Iowa Democrats hold. Policy points are great, but if you can’t get people excited about him, kind of what’s the point?”
After a full slate of events on Saturday, Webb finished out his Iowa trip in Mason City on Sunday. Along with several Democratic legislators, Webb toured the Golden Grain Energy ethanol plant and met with the Every Child Matters organization in Mason City. While at the latter he reportedly spoke about his concern of high incarceration rates and how the country should be focused on the achievement gap in schools.
Afterwards he spoke briefly at a fundraiser for State Representatives Sharon Steckman and Todd Prichard. In the crowd of about 60 people and the smaller events prior he seemed to connect better with local Democrats. “I was very impressed. He was very honest, very straight-shooter,” said Steckman. Also something interesting – at the fundraiser he spoke at decent length about both Steckman and Prichard without any notes, something presidential candidates don’t always take the time to do at these things.
“I thought [his attitude] was right,” said attendee Glen Alden, in particular noting Webb’s military background and Iraq vote. “This is one of the problems I think Hillary’s going to have for some of us like last time, is her vote on Iraq, and her unwillingness to reconsider.” On Webb’s actual chances, Alden referenced Obama’s low early standing. “Where was Obama? It’s not impossible – and I think people that I know have sort of an open mind.”
Throughout both of his speeches, one topic Webb honed in on was his concern of the influence big money increasingly has in politics. “Money is ruining our political process if we don’t get a hold of it,” he said at the Polk County Democrats dinner. Starting Line asked him more about it at Mason City, to which Webb responded, “I think you can start out by examining what has happened to American politics since the Citizens United case … Everyone in this country should be very concerned with how much money is coming in to this political process.”
Several attendees at both events pointed out this topic in particular. “I loved the way he talked about hearing that billion dollar figure for a presidential campaign,” said Steckman of Webb explaining how he was dismayed when hearing each party’s nominee’s campaign will likely cost a billion dollars. “Because think about what you could do with a billion dollars … It was refreshing to hear him put that out there as an issue” Murphy from the Des Moines event agreed, saying, “I did not know he was such a strong opponent of money in politics, which is a big issue of mine, and I like that he gave that some serious consideration – talking about repealing Citizens United.”
Overall it was an interesting trip to follow. Webb’s speeches weren’t bad, they just weren’t all that good yet. He did commit to returning to Iowa often, so perhaps he’s still in the very introductory phase. One would hope that Webb will build out his speeches and policy positions considerably more as the primary develops, as his performances so far aren’t likely to pull many Iowans away from Hillary Clinton or O’Malley, or inspire uncommitteds to rally to his cause. His military background and Senate record could give him a niche in the race, even if it’s unclear how he becomes an insurgent campaign that could challenge Clinton. There’s still plenty of time, but he’ll need to show Iowans something more by the next time he visits.
by Pat Rynard