WASHINGTON — Jim Webb's parents taught him early what it means to be a leader.
“Different families have different discussions at the dinner table,” he said. “Ours was how you lead people; how do you take care of people?”
Those talks typically culminated in this question: “What kind of leader do you want — a leader who will make you do something, or make you want to do something?” he told the Tribune-Review in an interview on Capitol Hill.
He knew then that his life's calling was “this alternating cycle of public service and independent entrepreneurship.”
Webb, 69, the former senator from Virginia, is pondering whether he can gain the support necessary to make a successful run in 2016 for the Democratic nomination for president.
The author of “Born Fighting,” a chronicle of the stubbornness and influence of the Scots-Irish in American politics and military history, is fighting with himself to decide whether to “go big” with a full-fledged campaign, Webb said.
He plans to visit Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire soon and has a campaign website, www.Webb2016.com.
“I'm looking at this issue in terms of whether this is something that I can fully commit myself to, and we're also trying to figure out if we can get the sort of financial support” that's necessary, he said.
Webb's populist message went over well with members of the International Association of Fire Fighters at a conference last week, where he was among potential presidential candidates from both political parties who addressed the group. His speech touched on his combat service as a Marine and his union ties.
“I think I can safely say that I am still the only person ever elected to statewide office in Virginia with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos,” Webb said, stirring cheers from the 600 firefighters in the room.
“His military service is a plus with members. We look at that with respect,” said Ralph Sicuro, a Pittsburgh firefighter for 17 years and president of the city's IAFF Local 1. “A lot of our guys are former military. They can connect to someone who has been in the line of duty.”
Sicuro, a Democrat from Lincoln Place, said Webb's approach could resonate with average Americans: “A moderate Democrat is something our members, locally and nationally, could connect with.”
Webb's message is interesting, given that “he is a blue-collar Democrat who speaks to the hopes and frustrations of moderate Democrats across the country,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic media consultant at Purple Strategies in Washington. “These people, who would be referred to in other times as Reagan Democrats, often decide the outcome of close general elections.”
Webb's challenge, McMahon said, would be going against the well-oiled machine backing Hillary Clinton, if her anticipated candidacy survives the clamor over her use of a private email account while secretary of State.
A Real Clear Politics aggregate of six opinion polls from Jan. 18 to March 4 showed Clinton with a commanding average of 44 percent support among Democratic primary voters over potential rivals, including Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. Webb's average support of 1.7 percent was 0.5 of a percentage point more than O'Malley's.
Clinton is “an overwhelming favorite candidate among Democrats,” McMahon said.
‘American dream' at risk
Webb's career has taken him from the battlefields of Vietnam as a Marine Corps infantryman to the Pentagon, as assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs and as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. He became an Emmy Award-winning journalist and authored 10 books. He won the Senate seat in 2006.
Webb's third wife, Hong Le Webb, is a Vietnamese-American securities and corporate lawyer; the oldest of his six children, Jimmy, is a Marine who served in Iraq when his father ran for office. In a tribute to his son, Webb wore Jimmy Webb's combat boots during his Senate campaign.
He finished his term disillusioned with Washington's “divisional politics and lack of leadership,” thinking he was done with public service, the elder Webb said.
Then Webb became the first potential 2016 presidential candidate to form an exploratory committee, in November. His populist style differs from other Democrats who might seek the party's nomination by putting forth sharp anti-Wall Street, anti-Koch brothers rhetoric.
“This is not ‘anti-Wall Street' for me,” he said. “We have to grow our economy for people to have successful lives, but at the same time, we have to be fair.”
He dislikes government-enforced equity measures to achieve a healthy middle class. The term “income inequality” that some attribute to populism is not a useful phrase, he said.
“A lot of people use that term as a government mandate of balancing income levels, but I have been talking about it as an issue of fairness in insuring that everybody does have a shot, that every one of us can achieve ‘the American dream' with hard work,” Webb said.
He is clear that he would never vote to increase taxes on “ordinary earned salary income, no matter what the level is, that is fairly earned.” But he questions income such as capital gains, “where you can be making millions of dollars off of stock sales and pay a lower tax rate than the firefighters putting their lives on the line.”
At the firefighters conference, Webb told the audience: “The grand bargain that has been the foundation of our entire society is simple — if you work hard and elect leaders who will insist on a fair chance for you to succeed, you will have a good income and a comfortable way of life.”
That simple concept is at risk, he said, drawing a boisterous standing ovation.
Economy shapes concerns
Webb believes his unique combination of experience in government, the private sector and both political parties — he switched from Republican to Democrat in 2006, when he ousted GOP Sen. George Allen by a few thousand votes — helps him understand America in a way that other candidates do not.
“Geographically, demographically, I have been able to see so many different areas of the country,” he said. “I don't think this is going to be a party contest. People are kind of fed up with incumbents on both sides. They want to see honest leadership.”
In the thousands of emails Webb said he gets from people encouraging him to run, many tell him: “I don't always agree with you, but I trust you.”
That includes millennials as well as older voters, he said — people who have begun to vote “a la carte” and not along rigid party lines, largely because of their concerns with the economy.
“We have to adapt to the different employment models ... coming up through the millennial generation,” said Webb. “Manufacturing jobs are not what they used to be. Sole employment, individual contract employment, and portability of employment — it's a totally different model that I don't think we have paid enough attention to.”
Webb said his inspiration to run for president comes from within: “Every time I have come back into public service, it is because I have felt compelled. ... I didn't wake up at 5 years old and say, ‘I want to be president,' but the country needs a leader.”
Whether or not Webb gains the support he needs, he could help to shape next year's race, said McMahon, the political analyst.
“Throughout modern political history, there has always been a moment in the Democratic primary process when an insurgent candidate threatens the inevitability of the front-runner,” he said, citing Howard Dean in 2004, Bill Bradley in 2000 and Ted Kennedy in 1980. “They were not ultimately successful but did shape the conversation and policy position that nominees eventually take.”
This time, McMahon said, the candidate who does that could be Webb or O'Malley, who has yet to decide whether to run.