Will Rogers famously quipped: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." For the past six years of the Bush Administration, this has been a common lament among Democratic loyalists. But the times they are a changing. The ferocious response of Democratic Senator Jim Webb to the President's lame State-of-the-Union address indicated that Dems have taken steroids, muscled up, and decided to duke it out with the Bush gang.
For two years in a row, Democratic leadership chose a Virginia politician to give the Democratic response to Bush's SOTU speech. Last year, Governor Tim Kaine and this year, newly elected Senator Jim Webb. Where Kaine came across as mild-mannered nice guy, Mister Rogers, Webb conveyed the toughness associated with Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry: "Go ahead, make my day." Somewhere during the past twelve months, Democrats realized Americans don't feel safe with wimps. Democratic leaders, such as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, convey strength and resolve; they understand that Americans worry about national security, wonder which Party is better prepared to defend the USA. Senator Webb was the perfect choice to symbolize the Dems makeover as the toughest guys on Capitol Hill. Who would you rather have watch your back: George Bush or Jim Webb?
A year ago, Governor Kaine's response raised more questions than it answered: Who are the Democrats? What do they stand for? Why don't they hit hard at Bush weaknesses? At long last, Senator Webb answered these questions. Dems started playing offense.
Jim Webb had nine minutes compared to President Bush's forty-five minutes, but managed to convey resolute directness that was notably absent from the State-of-the-Union address. The first theme of Webb's remarks was economic populism. "When one looks at the health of our economy, it's almost as if we are living in two different countries... the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table." Democrats have "introduced a broad legislative package designed to regain the trust of the American people... We're working to get the right things done, for the right people and for the right reasons."
The Senator's second theme was Iraq: "this country has patiently endured a mismanaged war for nearly four years." Webb reminded Americans that his father was an Air Force Captain during World War II, he and his brother were Marines who served in Vietnam, and his son is a Marine, who is now serving in Iraq. Then he zeroed in on the Bush Administration, "Like so many other Americans, today and throughout our history, we serve and have served, not for political reasons, but because we love our country... we trusted the judgment of our national leaders." Webb questioned Bush' judgment, "The President took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from [experts] with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable and predicted disarray that has followed."
The Virginia Senator concluded with a call to action. He reminded his audience that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt took action to fight class warfare. And noted that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower took action to end the Korean War. Webb ended on a particularly strong note, "These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."
The strong performance of Senator Webb, coming on the heels of the success of the House Democrats "100 hours" agenda, left little doubt that the Dems are at long last getting organized. They are no longer the Party whose position is defined as "we're not Republicans." Over the past twelve months, Democrats have clarified what they stand for. In terms of economic policy, Dems have become the Party that defends the interests of the middle class, the Party that is willing to tackle the reality of the growing American economic divide.
And, in terms of Iraq, Webb sounded a theme that was echoed by most Capitol Hill Democrats: "We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq." After Webb's response, Democratic Presidential candidates, from Dennis Kucinich to Hillary Clinton echoed these basic themes: diplomacy, our soldiers should not be in the middle of sectarian violence, and there must be a plan to bring them home.
It's a miracle. Democrats are actually getting their act together.