Does Va. senator have what it takes for Dems to win in NC?

by DG Martin

A few days ago, when the Democrats took charge of the Congress, some of us forgot that control of the US Senate would not have shifted except that an unusual Democrat won an election in a nearby state.

New Sen. Jim Webb is anything but a typical Democrat.

He was a longtime Republican and even served as President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy. He defends the Vietnam War in which he served as a decorated Marine Corps officer. He is “pro-gun.” He takes a hard line on illegal immigration.

Democrats may not like his positions on the issues, but they surely liked his come-from-behind victory over incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen.

Webb’s victory raises interesting questions for North Carolinians.

First, assume North Carolina Democrats could find a “Webb-like” candidate who could beat Elizabeth Dole in 2008. Then ask: Could a former Republican war hero with hard-line conservative views on important issues win the Democratic primary?

It is a tough question. Talk to some Democrats and they will tell you they will do anything to win. Other Democrats would rather lose than have their candidate compromise on key issues.

Another question about Webb is whether or not he is too confrontational and hardheaded to be an effective team player. Shortly after his election, he had an unfriendly exchange with President Bush. Some people wonder if he has the diplomatic attitude legislators need to succeed.

Webb is a successful writer. One of his books may give us clues about who Jim Webb really is, about the origins of this confrontational nature, and how he was able to appeal to enough rural and conservative voters in Virginia. Webb’s book, Born Fighting, is a history of the Scotch-Irish peoples. He follows them from the time of the Roman occupation of Britain until today’s America. Their history, he argues, made them tenacious fighters whenever it came to defending or asserting their rights.

Webb describes the struggles of the Scots with the English over the centuries. He details the immigration to Northern Ireland in the 17th Century and the fighting against both Irish and English to secure their families. Then these “Ulster Scots” began migrating to the Colonies, where they fought Indians on the frontier and stood up to the English colonists who ran the colonial governments. When the American Revolution broke out, the Scotch-Irish provided more than 40 percent of the troops that fought the British.

These fighting traits made the Scotch-Irish the backbone of American fighting forces, in the Revolution, Civil War, both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, where Webb himself fought bravely.

Webb believes that the fighting qualities of the Scotch-Irish are basically positive values in themselves, and he proudly claims to be a part of that culture.

A number of commentators have severely criticized Webb’s version of history. Among the most severe of them is Chapel Hill-based Celtic scholar Michael Newton, who condemns Webb for numerous factual errors and questionable methodology.

“Unfortunately,” writes Newton, “Webb makes the error of taking history personally, and trying to make the personal historical. He too often ‘proves’ his hypotheses by repeating anecdotes about his family or people he has met on his travels. While these may be amusing sketches, they are not the data of the historical method.”

However you feel about Webb’s book (and I confess that I enjoyed it), Newton’s point about the book making the “personal historical” is just the reason that it can help us understand who Webb is or, at least, who he thinks he is.

In addition, I think, Webb describes the people whose votes he won in the recent election – the “little people” who have been oppressed by big government, big business and both political parties. These are people who mostly voted Republican in recent elections. They are people who, like the Scotch-Irish that Webb describes, are ready to choose leaders who will speak for them and fight for them.

And they showed last fall that they would vote for candidates like Jim Webb, even if the candidates were Democrats, which is why North Carolina Democrats should be thinking about Webb as they plan for 2008.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina “Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.