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Commentary: Will Jim Webb be Trump's secretary of Defense?

Jim Webb is, at least in a nominal sense, a Democrat. Last year, he briefly pursued the Democratic nomination for president, a run best remembered for his joke about killing the Vietnamese soldier who threw a grenade at him.

Now Webb is singing Donald Trump’s praises, and may have his eye on a cabinet job. “I would like to salute Donald Trump for his tenacity and for the uniqueness of his campaign,” Webb during a speech to a hundred or so attendees at a foreign policy symposium in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

To hear Webb tell it, in fact, he tried to do what Trump did. “It took an outsider, whatever his wealth and lack of government experience, to tell the truth,” Webb said, before explaining that his own efforts in this regard were tripped up by his lack of wealth and an intransigent Democratic elite.

Who is presidential candidate Jim Webb? 01:03

Conservative writer Bill Kauffmann floated Webb’s name as a possible cabinet pick in his introduction of the former Virginia senator. Later on, a questioner mentioned an “incredible rumor going around” that Webb might be offered secretary of defense, and asked whether he would accept the role. Webb did not answer the question.

It all had the look and feel of a trial balloon being launched. Here was Webb, with his sterling resume, laying out a vision of America’s vision in the world that roughly hewed with what Trump said on the campaign trail: Putting America first, minding our own business, avoiding foreign entanglements. And of course he had nothing but nice things to say about the president-elect, even though he declined to say whom he’d voted for.

He also spoke quite a bit about how Democrats left working class whites behind: “It made white working people their most convenient whipping posts, particularly white males.”

It was a message likely to resonate with the audience. The American Conservative, a right-wing publication with a dovish, populist bent, had put the symposium together. Founded in 2002 as a home for anti-war conservatives, it can in some sense be credited for providing the intellectual architecture of what we now think of as Trumpism.

Whether any of that architecture still interests Trump is another matter. Regardless, Webb’s resume is immaculate. He’s a graduate of Annapolis and of Georgetown Law. He’s a highly decorated war hero. He’s already been an assistant secretary of Defense, secretary of the Navy, and a U.S. Senator.

And he’s also an acclaimed author of ten books, including “Born Fighting,” his 2004 history of the Scotch-Irish people that was the “Hillbilly Elegy” of its time.

That resume didn’t serve him in his no-hope bid for the Democratic nomination last year. But it would likely make a Senate confirmation vote a breeze, and that fact alone could make a Webb nod tempting to Trump’s White House team.

John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, two floated names for Trump’s secretary of State, could easily be stuck in confirmation hearings for months. (Sen. Rand Paul is already saying he’ll do anything possible to stop Bolton.)

Trump's transition woes 02:36

Meanwhile, Steve Bannon’s elevation to White House strategist has already produced tremendous blowback. Possible Defense pick Gen. Michael Flynn could face trouble explaining some of his foreign ties. And getting an immigration hardliner like Kris Kobach or Jeff Sessions to a major post could be a hard-fought battle as well.

Not so with Webb, a known quantity that would likely appease both Trump fans and some detractors within Washington officialdom. It would also give Trump a Democrat in his cabinet. Cross-party moves like that tend to be attractive to presidents, and may be particularly so to an off-and-on Democrat like Trump.

It would also reassure supporters and critics alike that Trump has no intention of getting the U.S. into a war. Webb, unlike Trump, was an early and outspoken critic of the Iraq War, a position that launched his career in electoral politics. His non-interventionist bona fides are rock solid.

Webb’s big idea is that we need a “clear statement of national security interests.” He’s critical of NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, and said he feels humanitarian military adventures are deeply unwise. But first and foremost, we need a strategy that’s easily understood by enemies, allies, and the American people alike.

“Tell me what our national interest is, how we are going to defend it, how we will know we have accomplished our mission -- and if you can do that, you have a strategy,” he said. And in Webb’s version of that strategy, generally speaking, we’d be preoccupied to containing Chinese influence in Asia in lieu of wars of choice like the Libya intervention.

Regardless of what anyone makes of Webb’s pronouncements, he has the authority to make them, and could provide a degree of nuance to Trump’s foreign policy impulses. Whether the president-elect has any interest in that is another matter, but on the merits, a top job for Jim Webb would make a fair bit of sense.  

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