State of the Union: Bush Moderate, Webb Dominant
Last night's State of the Union ritual was stunning in two respects. First, George Bush often sounded like a moderate. Gone was the hubris, the smirking, from years past, when he faced a rubber-stamp Republican majority in Congress. Instead, Bush last night called for an increase in fuel economy standards for cars. He called for an effort to fight "global climate change," the GOP phraseology for "global warming," a concept to which many of Bush's party members do not even subscribe. Bush also spoke about his efforts to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. And he called for affordable and available health care for all Americans. These words could practically have been spoken by a Democratic president. When Bush did turn into the old Bush and touted his Iraq troop escalation plan, however, the response even from Republicans was muted.
Bush's chastened demeanor and moderate proposals reflected the new political reality he faces. That reality was evident over Bush's left shoulder, where the first female Speaker of the House in U.S. history, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, sat. The new political reality was also evident just feet in front of Bush, where, for the first time, the sea of Senators and representatives Bush faced in the House Chamber was more blue than red.
But much more remarkable than Bush's speech was the Democratic response by Virginia Senator Jim Webb. Usually the opposition party doesn't have a chance in the response to the State of the Union speech. Most of the time, the speaker is not as well known as the President. He or she has very little time to prepare. There is no red white and blue bunting, no cheering representatives and senators, no stars in the gallery above. However, Webb's response to Bush was an alpha male Scots Irish tour de force. Calm, steely eyed, and spare of speech, Webb held up a picture of his father in military uniform. Then Webb spoke about his own military experience in Vietnam, and that of his brother. Finally, Webb disclosed that his son is now fighting in Iraq, one of very few children of members of Congress in Iraq. Webb spoke about how proudly his family has served their country in uniform, and, something we rarely hear, what the government owes our fighting men and women in return:
"We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us — sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it."
According to Webb, George Bush has broken this sacred compact with America's soldiers:
"The president took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others 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."
Webb concluded his response by recalling strong Republican presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower, who had the courage to end America's involvement in unsuccessful wars when it became clear that a military solution alone was not possible. Webb then said:
"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 contrast between a president whose popularity, influence and connection to reality is waning and a tough new Democratic Senator willing to take him on directly, possibly with his emboldened party in tow, could not be more clear.