Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, left, stands on stage with Democratic presidential… (Alex Brandon/ASSOCIATED…)
James Webb is leaving Washington — official Washington — again.
Virginia’s 66-year-old senior senator has never stayed in any government job — including Marine Corps officer, House committee lawyer, assistant defense secretary and Navy secretary — for more than about five years. So, right on cue, in early 2011, after reaching the five-year, one-month mark in his term, the Democrat announced that he would not seek reelection.
No shock, there. But the real questions remain: Will he ever return? And what has he accomplished?
“I came here to help govern rather than having a specific laundry list,” Webb said in an interview in a narrow conference room adjoining his Senate office, identifying the themes that have defined his tenure: economic fairness and social justice, reorienting national security policy, and reestablishing the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.
All three have been long-standing concerns, whether stemming from Webb’s time in Vietnam, his service as a Capitol Hill staff member, or his abiding interest in the history of his working-class, Scotch-Irish forebears. So Webb refuses to measure success based on what he does or doesn’t accomplish before his successor is sworn in.
“This isn’t going to end just because I’m leaving office,” he said. “I used to write regularly about these issues . . . and I will continue to work on them.”
In some ways, Webb was incapable of settling in on Capitol Hill. He is a senator who hates the glacial pace of the institution, a candidate who toppled a Virginia legend but is an unenthusiastic campaigner, a Democrat who occasionally exasperated — and was exasperated by — his own party.
These differences, his admirers say, will be missed. “The Senate,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), “doesn’t need everybody to be out of the same cookie cutter.”
A mixed record
Webb has scored some notable achievements in the Senate, particularly passage of the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill. He also helped establish a high-profile commission on wartime contracting that found that tens of billions of dollars were wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan because of lax oversight.
But Webb’s long push for a panel to study ways to reform the criminal justice system was stymied last fall, when Senate Republicans blocked a measure despite bipartisan sponsorship and the support of a wide range of organizations.
His calls for Congress to reassert its role in deciding when the United States sends its military into harm’s way have mostly fallen on deaf ears, despite a brief burst of attention last year during hostilities in Libya.
“I think the Senate needs to step up in terms of regaining its proper constitutional authority, and I think that’s Republican or Democrat,” Webb said. “That’s where the institution has kind of atrophied.”
Between those two poles, he has scored successes that are more difficult to measure.
Economic fairness, a longtime theme in Webb’s writings and his 2006 successful campaign against then-Sen. George Allen (R), has become a staple of Democratic rhetoric and a key plank in President Obama’s reelection efforts. Webb signaled this priority three weeks after he was sworn in, when he delivered the Democratic response to President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address. In it, he cited a favorite principle from President Andrew Jackson — “that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base.”
“Against some advice, and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid will be happy to confirm that,” Webb recalled with a laugh, “I wrote my own speech and put economic fairness at the top of it. We forced that issue.”
On foreign policy, Webb has helped push the nation toward its recent strategic pivot to Asia, combining increased military resources in the region and enhanced partnerships with the countries that ring China.
“We’ve become the office up here in terms of the reconnection with East and Southeast Asia,” Webb said. “We led that.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said Webb has been “very influential” on Asian policy, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), another committee member and fellow veteran, made a similar point.
“He’s taken a real keen interest and it goes back decades, and the interest is both to recognize the emerging strategic and economic impact of Asia, and do it in a thoughtful way,” Reed said.
When the United States restored diplomatic relations with Burma this year, a senior State Department official singled out Webb in a background briefing for reporters.