U.S. Senate Democratic nominee candidates Jim Webb and Harris Miller are two very different candidates. Each man’s greatest strength is the other’s greatest weakness: Webb is a strong candidate with a weak campaign, while Miller is a weak candidate with a strong campaign.
Webb is, on paper, a great candidate. I’m not sure I could concoct a better hypothetical candidate to go up against Sen. George Allen. He’s a decorated veteran, a centrist, a journalist, a novelist, and as a former Secretary of the Navy, he’s precisely what Oceana needs. When he walks into a room, he’s clearly in charge. He’s a strong, clear speaker. He does not pander to his audiences.
But his campaign is not good. His fundraising has been lackluster, which is the kindest word that I can summon. I’ve never, ever seen a Webb campaign sign. I’ve never heard a Webb radio ad. I’ve never seen a Webb TV ad. We poll volunteers didn’t receive any Webb materials to use to promote his campaign until a small stack of cards were distributed at 8pm last night — and they don’t actually say anything about the man. Despite repeated efforts, I only managed to see him on the campaign trail once. (And he was a half hour late.) His campaign barely intersects with my world. I speculate that these campaign problems are, at least in part, a byproduct of the candidate’s military background — it must be quite difficult to be the campaign manager for Jim Webb, given that he is surely not a man accustomed to taking orders, or even having his own orders questioned.
Harris Miller, on the other hand, has nothing inspiring on his resume. There are no particular negatives in it (I can’t see the problem with his having been a lobbyist), but there’s nothing about the man to get a hold of. He’s not a veteran, a novelist or a journalist. He’s won neither a Purple Heart nor an Emmy. None of this is to say he’s not qualified for the job — he has experience on Capitol Hill, and he’s familiar with many of the issues likely to face him as a U.S. Senator. His only real angle is that he’s a long-time party insider, something that will serve him well in today’s low-turnout primary. He’s not a bad speaker, but he’s not particularly engaging, either. His treatment of Sen. Allen can be rather harsh — the first time I saw him speak, I bristled a bit at what I perceived as insufficient respect befitting the office, no matter how much I dislike “Senator Spitcup,” as the late great Ham Caldwell called him. The base liked it, though, and that’s how one goes about getting the nomination.
Where Harris Miller really shines is with his campaign. If the Miller campaign has done a single substantive thing wrong, I haven’t noticed. We’ve gotten no shortage of Miller materials for the polling places today. I’m drowning in Miller robocalls. If I’ve gotten one Miller mailer, I’ve gotten three dozen. I’ve had a half dozen opportunities to see him speak, which I’ve done three times now. At his request, we sat down and talked for nearly an hour early this year. Nearly every party insider and longtime Democratic committee member that I know supports him. His fundraising is head-and-shoulders above the Webb campaigns, whether or not you’re including the million dollars of his own money that he put into the kitty. Not only does this indicate that Miller knows how to pick professionals on whom he can rely, but that he knows how to lead and, when necessary, be led. It’s a very well run campaign.
It must be mentioned, too, that some of Webb’s supporters have done their candidate a disservice with the vociferousness of their opposition to Harris Miller. Were I to believe everything I have been told about Miller, I’d be forced to conclude that he routinely eviscerates live puppies, just for the joy of it. That he once tossed a grenade into a U.S. Army mess tent in Kabul. And that he has personally fired thousands of Americans workers and replaced them with well-trained Bangladeshi donkeys. There is much that Miller has advocated in his professional capacity that I disagree with strongly, that has even made me angry. But the asymmetrical ferocity with which some of Webb’s supporters have gone after Miller for these offenses has left me sympathizing with him, to my surprise. (Much as Miller’s attacks on Sen. Allen left me sympathizing with him.) It may not be fair for me to fault Webb for the actions of his supporters, but after enduring weeks of this unpleasantness, I cannot help but do so.
The question that has to be asked — the question that all informed Democrats voting today are surely asking themselves — is this: Do I want a great candidate or a great campaign? The choice, I believe, is binary.