A better use of Jim Webb's time than running for president as an independent

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Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb ended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination today. Warning that “The very nature of our democracy is under siege due to the power structure and the money that finances both political parties,” Webb said he will spend the next few weeks deciding whether to run for president as an independent. He still believes he “can provide the best leadership” to meet the country’s challenges and intends “to remain fully engaged in the debates that are facing us.”

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, recently estimated that getting on the ballot in all 50 states would cost about $8 million and would require a lot of organizational work. Webb asserted today, “I have no doubt that if I ran as an independent we would have significant financial help.” But his presidential campaign raised less than $700,000 during the entire third quarter. Nor did Webb build much of an organization, even in the early-nominating states.

Webb could devote the next year to seeking ballot access and public attention, winning a few percent of the vote in the best-case scenario. Or, he could influence a salient public policy debate that is close to his heart with a much smaller investment of his time and other people’s money.

I saw Webb speak twice this year: at the Polk County Democrats spring dinner in April, and the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in July. On both occasions, other candidates gave more conventional stump speeches and evoked a more enthusiastic crowd response. Webb doesn’t project a lot of passion compared to, say, Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley. Aside from a few points to demonstrate his staunchly pro-labor background, he doesn’t build a lot of applause lines into his remarks.

Going back over my notes from those events today, I remembered that Webb hit his stride when talking about his record on criminal justice reform. He told the Polk County audience it wasn’t easy to take on that issue in Virginia. People told him he would be committing “political suicide” to do so. But because it was “clear” the justice system was broken, he was determined to keep talking about the need for reforms. He “brought the issue out of the shadows” in Virginia. The Democratic Party “should own this issue,” Webb added, his voice rising, but “You know who’s getting the most mileage” out of it? Rand Paul.

At the Hall of Fame dinner, Webb described his work during six years as a U.S. senator to get colleagues from both parties and stakeholders outside Congress behind a criminal justice reform bill. Its supporters included the national sheriffs’ association and the Marijuana Project.

Webb didn’t seek re-election to the Senate in 2012. If he had won another term, he would surely have been in the bipartisan group that rolled out a criminal justice reform bill earlier this month. The “landmark piece of legislation” is the most significant federal effort to address these issues in a generation.

Criminal justice reform is becoming a hot topic in many states as well, as elected officials look for less costly and more effective policies than mass incarceration for lengthy prison terms.

Governor Terry Branstad formed a working group on criminal justice reform in August. Its members will approve policy recommendations early next month for state lawmakers to consider during the 2016 legislative session. At the Iowa Criminal Justice Summit in Cedar Falls on October 1, Kathy Bolten reported for the Des Moines Register, “About two dozen speakers spoke about reforming Iowa’s criminal justice system so that fewer people are incarcerated, including minorities, and finding ways to make re-entry to society easier for those who had been imprisoned.” Reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes may be on the legislature’s agenda as well. Some states have done so in recent years, with promising results.

The same qualities that make Webb think he would excel as an independent presidential candidate (“I often sound like a Republican in a room full of Democrats or a Democrat in a room full of Republicans”) would be a tremendous asset if Webb dedicated himself to advocating for criminal justice reform. His military service would command respect from anyone, regardless of political leanings. He is obviously not beholden to either party’s ideology. Having brought diverse stakeholders to the table when drafting his Senate criminal justice reform bill, he could talk to comparable groups at the state level. Traveling the country, Webb might be able to generate more media coverage as a coalition-builder focused on one issue than as a disgruntled former Democrat making a broader case against the “jammed up” political process.

After hearing Webb at the Hall of Fame dinner, I wrote, “If he accomplishes nothing this year beyond raising the salience of [criminal justice reform] in our political discourse, his candidacy will have been worthwhile.” Webb can no longer influence the presidential race in any major way, but he can be a high-profile voice for policies this country badly needs.

I hope he will consider taking on that challenge.

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