Democratic Sen. Jim Webb hesitates when asked if he’s going to campaign for President Obama next year.
“Are you going to be campaigning for President Obama?,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked the senator from Virginia in the latest installment of the “ Subway Series.”
“We’ll see what that looks like next year,” said Webb.
“But you won’t say you will, at this point,” said Karl.
“I’m not saying that I won’t,” said Webb, later adding, “I’m saying I’ve been out there all this year for state races. I’m a Democrat.”
A spokesman later followed up to clarify that Webb supports President Obama.
President Obama might need him. The swing state of Virginia is essential to the president’s reelection campaign. And Webb’s Senate seat is a symbolic one for Democrats. Webb’s razor-thin victory over then-Sen. George Allen in 2006 helped give Democrats a razor-thin majority in the Senate.
After a big boom in 2008 and devastating losses in 2010, Democrats will likely need to hold on to Webb’s seat if they want to keep control of the Senate.
But Allen wants the seat back. And Webb decided not to seek reelection. Former DNC Chairman Tim Kaine is running as a Democrat to replace Webb.
In the Senate, Webb, a former Marine and Navy secretary under Republican Ronald Reagan, has shown his independence and seemed at turns frustrated with his party, the snail’s pace and gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“Right now it’s pretty toxic,” he said.
Karl asked Webb if people are “right to be worried about their leader.”
“You always need to look at who the leaders are, and I think what happened with this national debt debate really shook a lot of people up,” said Webb, referring to the debate this past summer involving government spending, shutdowns and raising the debt ceiling.
“What is going on when your government gets paralyzed by a vote just to raise the national debt,” he said. “Ronald Reagan - I was in the Reagan administration - Ronald Reagan raised the national debt 18 times. We know we have to get our arms around it, but was that the right symbolic area to come together to threaten, to push the economy over the cliff. And I, quite frankly, don’t believe it was.”
He pointed to real disagreement between the parties on how to fix the broken U.S. economy and offered a lucid opinion on why nothing seems to happen.
“There’s a big debate going back and forth as to how you really can revitalize the economy, and I think we are sort of at a stagnation in terms of the differing viewpoints,” he said. “We know we need jobs. We also know, quite frankly, that you have to have capital growth in order to really increase private sector jobs, which is how you sustain an economy. And a lot of the proposals that are coming forward right now are more public sector jobs, get people working again. But they are paid for out of the tax base. So that becomes the debate: Do you increase your tax base in order to try and stimulate the economy and, if so, how do you pay for it? And that’s sort of like WWI: You got these two lines drawn and a lot of attrition warfare going on, but not much movement on either side.”
Webb said he’s encouraged by the bipartisan supercommittee charged with identifying a deficit reduction plan before Thanksgiving or else the government will be forced into tough across-the-board spending cuts.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the supercommittee and that’s actually a plus right now, where they’re really behind closed doors and their negotiations are pretty opaque for those of us on the outside,” he said. “They have some pretty strong incentives to come up with solutions because of what’s going to happen if they don’t. I think that, at some level, the government could absorb some mandatory cuts if it came to that.”
Webb is a foreign policy expert and former Navy secretary, but he said there should be ways to save money at the Pentagon. Defense cuts have been assailed by many Republicans.
“I think at a minimum, the Pentagon can start reconfiguring our forces in Afghanistan, making sure we actually do withdraw from Iraq, and reshape the force structure,” he said. “I think they’re doing that right now when [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta says we’re having a strategy-based examination of our force structure. You could come out of that with a well-sized Navy, with a smaller Army and Marine Corps and less presence overseas. Plus, I think it ends a lot of the Beltway Bandit programs and examines weapons systems. You could come up with some sensible reductions that don’t hurt the quality of the military.”
But he wouldn’t say how big defense cuts should be.
“I don’t want to get into that. I just think it’s right to say that all the areas are on the table,” he said. “What I’m saying is if they came back and said, ‘Take the $400 billion out of DOD over time,’ there’s a way to do that to protect the quality of our military and our weapons systems and really look at the operational environment.”
Webb came to the Senate as an man with great military experience who was disgusted by President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq. He’s not been very complimentary of President Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, either.
“You still think we ought to be getting out of Afghanistan, and out quicker than is being talked about?” asked Karl.
“I think the fairest thing to say about Afghanistan is that’s not the model we’re going to be using in the future and neither [is] Iraq the model we’re going to be using in the future,” he said.
And on Kaine’s bid to replace Webb and defeat Allen?
“I think Tim Kaine is going to be a really fine senator,” Webb said. “He is truly one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with in politics, and I’ll do anything I can to help him get elected.”