The SOTUTU2: Webb’s Response

For about twenty years, I have been consistently underwhelmed by the Democratic Response to the SOTU’s of Republican presidents. Under Reagan, they were lame and even subservient. Under Poppy Bush, they tended to be smug and/or weakass lists of potential policy initiatives. In the first 5 years of our Junior Emperor’s Regnum, they’ve ranged from whiny to supportive to outright toadying just before the invasion. They have been, iow, responses less to Junior’s SOTU than to the polls.

Last night, Virginia’s new Senator, James Webb, may have been looking at the polls as well, but even if he has been, what he saw wasn’t the excuse for yet another shopping list of policies but an opening to present Democrats as they used to be: tough-minded champions of the unrich. He took full advantage of the opportunity, and kudos (major) to Pelosi for choosing him. It was a gutsy call that was widely criticized (Webb is said to be a bad campaigner and worse orator, about which more later), but she was absolutely right on: this was the best speech, content-wise, of any Democratic SOTU response in the last quarter century. (Full text here.)

These things often start with a nod to bipartisanship, a “hoping we can work with the president on issues common to both sides” kind of thing, and Webb’s was no different except for the tone of it. Instead of an emphasis on the “we would hope to be able to work with you” stuff, Webb turned it around and very firmly put the emphasis on “we hope you’ll work with us”. It was subtle but the message was pretty clear: “Playtime is over. The grown-ups are in charge. Get with the program or we’ll do it without you.”

To say that was refreshing is an understatement. I’ve been waiting to hear that tone applied to extremist, anti-democratic Republican administrations for 25 years. I’m sorry it took a war to bring it out. It shouldn’t have. Clinton had a lot of chances and plenty of motivation to take a tone like that but he was cramped by the vicious Pub attacks on him – he couldn’t go after them without it looking like partisan political payback. Besides, he’s always been a consensus-builder who doesn’t face confrontation so much as he slides around it and tries to pretend it’s not there.

Webb has no such restriction, and for a convert has a better understanding of what the Democratic Party has always been about than any three DLCers put together. He showed that, front and center, when he finished the introduction and got down to business. He took John Edwards’ “Two America’s” theme and did a better job of explaining it than Edwards himself.

When one looks at the health of our economy, it’s almost as if we are living in two different countries. Some say that things have never been better. The stock market is at an all-time high, and so are corporate profits. But these benefits are not being fairly shared. When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it’s nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day.

Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world. Medical costs have skyrocketed. College tuition rates are off the charts. Our manufacturing base is being dismantled and sent overseas. Good American jobs are being sent along with them.

In short, 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. Our workers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.

In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy – that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today.

Tell it, Brother. Finally. After decades of DLC-inspired “Shut up. You can’t say that. Our corporate donors won’t like it” timidity, tell it. I was on my feet and pumping my fist – or would have been if it had been delivered with any passion at all.

But it wasn’t, and therein lies the rub. Webb’s delivery was stony, flat, uninspired – the exact opposite of the speech he had written. Now I could understand why some Democrats questioned Pelosi’s choice: the man can’t talk. Little or no inflection, little or no conviction, little or no – well, no passion ever managed to escape from that tightly-controlled voice. If, say, just to pick a name out of a hat, Mario Cuomo had delivered Webb’s speech, it would have rocked the country. You’d have heard the Democratic base cheering from Palo Alto to Wood’s Hole.

It’s not just me – we’ve all been waiting a long time for a Democrat to say that and say it clear and strong in words everybody could relate to. But Mario didn’t and they didn’t. Although the response to what Webb said has been very positive, it isn’t so much cheering as heads nodding quietly in agreement, “Yes, that’s the way it is.” The activists may be cheering, but the vast majority of the base is not.

Maybe that’s enough, not to get them excited or motivated, but enough to give them hope that the Democrats are at last on the right path doing, as Webb said, the right things “for the right people and for the right reasons.”

Let’s hope the Dems can live up to his promise.

Addendum: Jonathan Alter on Webb.

For the first time ever, the response to the State of the Union Message overshadowed the president’s big speech.

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