There were all manner of reasons for Barack Obama to pick someone other than Jim Webb as his running-mate (though there was a case to be made for Webb too). But, via Ross Douthat, here's a reminder of why Webb is, as he might put it himself, a serious politician:
This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."
It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, and it trails only Texas in the number of people it has executed. Moreover, as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers' minds.
But Webb has never been one to rely on polls or political indicators to guide his way. He seems instead to charge ahead on projects that he has decided are worthy of his time, regardless of how they play -- or even whether they represent the priorities of the state he represents.
I don't blame the Washington Post reporter for focusing on the political risks Webb runs in taking this stance. That's the natural horse-race way to view these things. More notable is the note of surprise, even wonder, in that final paragraph: Imagine charging ahead on worthy projects regardless of how they play! How long can a guy like that survive in Washington?
Now it's true that Webb's bill only seeks to create a national panel that will make recommendations on improvements to a criminal justice system that currently incarcerates nearly 2.5m people. Clearly this is a long way from actually pressing states to reform their prison systems. But it's a start and a reminder that, for all his excesses of pride and cussedness, Webb's one of the more interesting, even admirable*, members of the United States Senate.
Anyway, it would be good - chnge we can elieve in, even - if the new President supports Webb. (Politically, of course, Webb's doing Obama a favour: the President-elect has an interest in these matters, but it's more convenient if the initiative comes from the Senate, not the White House.)
As always, I can't really recommend Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song strongly enough. It's still, I think, the best book on Webb. (And one of the best on John McCain too.)
[*That's just because he's embraced stuff you like, ain't it? Plus the whole Appalachian, Scots-immigrant thing. If he comes out in favour of school vouchers you'l be totally in the tank. You betcha.]