One day in 1983, Jim Webb borrowed the local news studio at an ABC affiliate in Eau Claire, Wis., to videotape himself on VHS giving a 14-minute speech about how he might run for president in 2016. He then buried the tape in a cornfield. This week, he retrieved it and uploaded it to the internet.
OK, not really. Webb actually just made the video and released it on Wednesday, although you’d never know it from the grainy, low-definition look. Webb announced that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee.
As Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel observes, “It probably says something about Webb’s dark horse status—or about the priorities of the media—that Webb2016.com was registered on Oct. 20 and nobody really noticed.” He only served one term in the U.S. Senate, as a Democrat from Virginia, before getting frustrated and retiring in 2013. He barely even won the seat in 2006. During the Democratic wave election year, incumbent Republican George Allen, who had a history of racial insensitivity and a fetish for the Confederate flag, hurled a racial slur at an Indian-American Webb volunteer filming an Allen speech. The ensuing controversy helped Webb, formerly a Republican himself, edge out Allen by less than one percentage point. Previously, Webb’s main claim to fame was a short tenure as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. He also served in Vietnam, worked as a staffer in the House of Representatives, and wrote books and articles, including a piece arguing women should not be allowed to serve in combat roles in the military.
Webb cannot be easily dismissed, though. The white male elite of the Democratic Party is always on the lookout for a candidate with machismo, a military background, or a Southern home state to help them win back the elusive working-class white voters. Gruff, gun-toting Webb has all three. He was talked up in the Beltway media as a possible 2008 running mate for Obama or Hillary Clinton. He excited the liberal blogosphere with his unusually strong official Democratic response to the State of the Union in 2007. Webb’s chances of beating Clinton for the Democratic nomination are slim, but he could be a top-tier contender if she didn’t run or be on the vice-presidential shortlist.
So it’s a problem that Webb sucks on climate change. The next president has to be a climate hawk. We’re rapidly running out of time to stave off the worst effects of warming. And, with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives until at least 2022 thanks to gerrymandering, federal progress on emissions reductions will only happen through executive action.
When he served in the Senate, Webb was a “climate curmudgeon,” as Kate Sheppard put it in Mother Jones. “A moderate, coal-state Democrat … Webb has emerged as a major pain in the ass for Democratic leaders on climate issues.” In 2008, when public concern for climate change was at a high point, Webb told Politico that he didn’t think reducing emissions was a priority. “We need to be able to address a national energy strategy and then try to work on environmental efficiencies as part of that plan,” Webb said. “We can’t just start with things like emission standards at a time when we’re at a crisis with the entire national energy policy.”
Instead of wind and solar, Webb advocates for nukes and the chimera of “clean coal.” When speaking to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce in 2010, Webb said, “I believe the way to go with coal is to get the technology to address the issues, rather than to put coal out of business. And I’m a strong believer, from the time that I was 18 years old, in the advantages of nuclear power.”
In 2009, he refused to support cap-and-trade legislation. Instead, he introduced a bill with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to expand subsidies for nuclear power, with an aim of doubling the nation’s nuclear capacity.
When President Obama went to Copenhagen in 2009 to negotiate an international climate accord, Webb sought to undermine him by sending a letter arguing that the president does not have the authority to commit to such an agreement. Binding international treaties require Senate ratification by a two-thirds majority, of course, but a president certainly has the authority to negotiate such a treaty before submitting it to the Senate. On climate change, what’s actually more likely than a treaty is a coordinated voluntary statement of intention, like the Copenhagen Accord that emerged from those negotiations, and this month’s announcement of planned emission limits by the U.S. and China. But Webb’s skepticism about the whole negotiation process makes it look highly unlikely that he would be a strong international leader on climate change.
Webb didn’t settle for just helping to kill the climate bill in the Senate and attacking the basis of the Copenhagen Accord. With congressional action off the table, attention turned to the EPA’s legal obligation under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2011, Webb called for delaying EPA regulation of GHGs. “Sweeping actions that the EPA proposes to undertake clearly overflow the appropriate regulatory banks established by Congress, with the potential to affect every aspect of the American economy,” he said. This “represents a significant overreach by the Executive branch,” he argued. “I am not convinced the Clean Air Act was ever intended to regulate or classify as a dangerous pollutant something as basic and ubiquitous in our atmosphere as carbon dioxide.” Presumably, then, if Webb were in charge of the executive branch, he would reverse these “overreaching” regulations.
Webb never made environmental protection a priority. His lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters was a respectable 81 percent — right in line with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden during their Senate careers. But on energy policy specifically, Webb took a number of anti-environment votes. He voted against cutting oil subsidies, in favor of forcing approval of Keystone XL, against funding for clean energy investment, and for voiding the EPA’s regulations of toxic pollutants like mercury from power plants.
Webb is not so much a progressive as a populist — an angry white man who took a left turn on issues of economic justice. The appeal of that to certain parts of the electorate is easy to recognize. But nothing in his record suggests any particular commitment to protecting the environment and public health. And on climate change, by far the most monumental environmental issue, Webb may be little better than the Republican Party to which he once belonged.