The Virginia Senate race is entertaining. The polls show it’s close, and the traditional stereotypes have been twisted: The Republican, George Allen, is the candidate with less standing on national-security issues, and the Democrat, Jim Webb, has a women problem. Both men chew tobacco and would probably subscribe to Maxim if they were a little younger. (They might anyway.) Allen, an athlete and son of a famous football coach, is a locker-room type, and Webb, a decorated Marine, acts with the impatience of a man who likes having his orders followed. And yet, in their Meet the Press debate Sunday, both admitted mistakes in a manner usually reserved for group therapy.
Allen’s mouth has caused him the biggest problem so far in the race. His “macaca” remarks raised questions about racial insensitivity and his intellectual wattage. Allen has also been hampered because he can’t change the message in the usual way. The former Virginia governor is a playbook politician. He uses the buzzwords and behaves with the programmatic regularity of a man trying to re-certify his politician’s license in public. (He rarely refers to Webb by name, using the generic “my opponent” instead, a tactic that seeks to irritate Webb by denying him equal standing.) The GOP strategy this cycle suggests Allen should be trying to frighten Virginia voters about his opponent’s weakness on national-security issues. But against Webb, those charges don’t fly.
The start of Sunday’s program explains why. The short biography of Allen included a clip of his famous father. Webb’s showed footage of him boxing at the Naval Academy, a gritty photo from his Vietnam tour, and a montage of the medals he has won. By the time they showed the candidates, I thought Webb might be in a loincloth. (Both men were dressed in dark suits with a red tie.)
Webb milked his résumé. When he weighed in on the debate over how to interrogate terrorist detainees, he added a little personal authority: “What you’re seeing here is a split between the theorists who have controlled so much of the policy in this administration—theorists who have never been on a battlefield, who have never put a uniform on, and who are looking at this thing in a totally different way from people who have had to worry about their troops and themselves possibly coming under enemy hands.” He wasn’t just talking to George Allen but to Vice President Cheney and President Bush. If Webb wins, he will no doubt be put into service giving that kind of answer as the top spokesman for the Democratic Party on defense issues. (Then the party’s problems will be down to one: getting a message.)
Webb’s military standing didn’t keep Allen from trying out a few of the usual lines. First he charged that Webb’s Iraq criticisms made him a Monday-morning quarterback. But six months before the Iraq war, Webb had been so opposed to it he visited Allen in his office to argue against an invasion.
When Allen tried to argue that Webb’s opposition to the first Gulf War put him to the left of the French (boo France!), it seemed laughable on its face, which was a good thing for Webb, whose response went from expansive to unintelligible. All in one breath, he tried to defend his opposition to the first Gulf War, make a policy point about Iran, remind viewers he’d been in Vietnam and that Allen hadn’t, and note that his son is serving in the military now. “First of all, with respect to Gulf War I, I was testifying in the Nunn hearings, I was warning 16 years ago that the worse job we did on Iraq, the more powerful Iran would become and with respect to the French analogy, which is used before, my Marine son was home, and he said, ‘Wait a minute, okay, the French did support Gulf War I. Dad, you fought in Vietnam, George Allen didn’t fight in Vietnam, even the French fought in Vietnam.’ And what have the French got to do with any of this?” Man overboard! Webb’s old Navy buddies were no doubt throwing life preservers at the television in a desperate effort to help.
To stop Webb’s climb, Allen has worked in recent weeks to pull him into a fight over personal issues. He attacked Webb for misappropriating Ronald Reagan in a campaign commercial and then for an article Webb wrote 27 years ago titled “Women Can’t Fight.” At a press conference organized by Allen, five female U.S. Naval Academy graduates said the article prompted harassment by male midshipmen at the academy. The oafish writings aren’t as entertainingly damning as Allen’s macaca performance, but they are pretty potent. As Russert pressed the issue, Webb looked very uncomfortable. He tried to put his writings in context but only seemed to dig the hole deeper. He did at least know to bail out when asked about his view that the “Naval Academy was a horny woman’s paradise.” “If I were a more mature person I would not have written that,” Webb said. Eager to demonstrate he is now comfortable with women in the military, Webb boasted of the woman pilot of a CH-46 who took him through Afghanistan: “She gave me the ride of my life.”
Then it was George A.’s turn for therapeutic admissions. “We were wrong,” he said about his opposition to women attending the Virginia Military Institute. On the question of his affection for the Confederate flag, he said he had grown and suggested it was a brief act of youthful confusion. “The Confederate flag—as a kid I was rebellious, anti-establishment, I still am, and I looked at the flag as a symbol for that,” he said.
Allen’s flag fancy lasted well into his adult public life, and he ducked Russert’s question about his opposition to a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., but the dip and dodge has served Allen well in politics. If he wins a second term, it will be due to his finely honed ability to stay on message and ignore questions put to him. Asked whether he agreed with Colin Powell’s assertion that redefining the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on torture makes the world begin to doubt the moral basis of America’s fight against terrorism, Allen ducked: “I don’t believe that the world is doubting our commitment and our resolve to fight these maniacal terrorists.” Russert tried twice more to get an answer, but Allen was a wet bar of soap. Asked if he would serve out his full six years if elected and not run for president, Allen skittered around the tub again, all the while offering the sunny countenance of a man who had answered the question.
Russert ended the debate by asking both candidates if their tobacco chewing sent a bad message to the children. “We all have our vices,” said Webb, “and I’ve been chewing tobacco since I was 14.” (Don’t let your kids take treats from the Webb home this Halloween.) Allen gestured as if he were about to pull out his tin of dip right there on the show, though he admitted his use didn’t send a good message to kids. Tobacco is Virginia’s largest cash crop, produced in nearly half of its counties. On this topic, there was going to be a bipartisan truce.