RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As the Democrats take over Congress, we're spending this week talking to Democratic lawmakers about what their party stands for. Jim Webb was the candidate whose win in Virginia pushed the party into the majority in the Senate. And by now his biography is well known: A former Marine who won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam; a one-time secretary of Navy under Ronald Reagan; a lawyer and author of best-selling novels whose heroes tend to be outspoken men in uniform.
Senator Webb joined us from his office in the Senate. Good morning.
Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): Good morning. How are you?
MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Let us begin with the issue at hand. What is an issue that your position, as you see it, is closest to the mainstream Democratic position?
Sen. WEBB: It's really hard to define a mainstream Democratic position. We could define the leadership's position, and I think on the issues that the leadership put on the table here I'm pretty much aligned with most of them. I've decided to be an initial co-sponsor on eight of the original 10, and they range from ethics reform, raising the minimum wage, doing different things on energy. In all of those I'm pretty well aligned with the leadership of the Democratic Party.
MONTAGNE: Well as many people know, you switched from being a Republican to a Democrat. It sounds like at this moment you're right in the thick of it. Why did you make the switch?
Sen. WEBB: Well I grew up in a family that was Democratic and I went over to the Republicans like a lot of people did at the end of the Vietnam War based on national security issues. And again like a lot of people, I was never comfortable with the Republican Party platform as it related to economic fairness and some issues of social justice.
So the last book that I was writing, which is a non-fiction book about the Scotch-Irish migration and basically about the creation of populist-style democracy in the United States - Jacksonian democracy - caused me to do a lot of thinking about where both political parties are. And when I decided to run, I felt most comfortable with, shall we say, the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic Party. And this is why I decided to run as a Democrat.
MONTAGNE: And that wing of course speaking to the growing gap between rich and poor.
Sen. WEBB: I think Andrew Jackson said it first and said it best when he indicated that you measure the health of a society, not at its apex, but at its base. You measure the true health of the society, not by what the stock market is doing, but what the average wage earner is facing. I don't think there are too many of us who are over here in the so-called populist side who want to see the American economy stutter. What we want to see is a much fairer distribution of the benefits of this economy.
MONTAGNE: President Bush is speaking tonight about his new strategy for Iraq. Both Democratic leaders, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have sent a letter to the president, and I'm going to quote one line. “Surging forces is a strategy that you've already tried and that has already failed.”
Do you sign on to that position?
Sen. WEBB: Well, the first thing that we need to get clear here is that this proposal by the administration, whatever it actually ends up being, is not really strategic in nature. It's a tactical issue. Unless they want to present it as a totally new way to address Iraq writ large - we're talking the surge of troops basically in reaction to what they believe is the different type of situation in Baghdad and in Al Anbar.
One of the biggest problems in the entire approach to the Iraq war is that this administration has never articulated a strategy that will show you an endpoint. If you can't tell this country when this war is going to be over in specific terms, then you don't have a strategy.
MONTAGNE: But in the sort of same area, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested the Democrats might cut off funding for troops. Is there any chance that the party would really do that or enforce that?
Sen. WEBB: That the difficulty with that, and I understand where, you know, where the leadership is coming from on that. The difficulty with doing that is that it's hard to separate really the surge from the rest of the troop deployments. What we have to do is we need to have a diplomatic approach involving the countries in this region that are tangential to Iraq and other countries that have historical interests in the region.
We need to bring a situation to bear where we can withdraw our combat troops, where can still address the issues of international terrorism, and where we can also repair our national strategy with respect to our interests all around the world, because that's suffering as well. We've been burning out our ground troops in one spot in the world, which I warned about five months before we even went into Iraq. And we are not solving the problem there.
We need to increase the stability in the region, and we're not going to do that really until our combat troops are out of Iraq.
MONTAGNE: Senator Webb, thank you for talking with us.
Sen. WEBB: OK. Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Senator Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia. In the new majority Democratic Senate, he's on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.
INSKEEP: We've been asking what the Democrats stand for since they took over Congress. And our series continues tomorrow when we talk with the Congresswoman from New York, Yvette Clarke.