Can Webb Avoid the SOTU Curse?
Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) is surely hoping for a brighter future in the Democratic Party than Christine Todd Whitman had in the GOP.
Whitman, the former director of the Environmental Protection Agency, was the moderate, made-for-suburban-soccer-moms governor of New Jersey when she was picked by Republican congressional leaders to deliver the response to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union -- the first time the GOP was in control of Congress in 40 years.
Fast forward 12 years and newly empowered congressional Democrats have chosen to go with someone outside of the party's mainstream to present their response to President Bush, the first time a Democratically controlled Congress will be reacting to a GOP president since 1992.
"We couldn't find anyone to better deliver the response," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a Tuesday morning briefing alongside Webb and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Hinting at his remarks tonight after Bush speaks, Webb ripped the latest White House's proposal to "surge" 21,500 troops into Baghdad. "If you cannot articulate clearly the endpoint of a strategy, you don't have one," Webb told reporters in Reid's conference room off the Senate floor. (Read the prepared text of Webb's response.)
Webb, a former Navy Secretary and military officer, has been one of the most articulate anti-war voices since before the 2003 Iraq invasion, which paid off with the huge buzz factor among the netroots crowd for his 2006 Senate campaign. And yes, his son is in Iraq on active duty for the Marines, a fact that played out again and again on the campaign trail as he wore his son's boots -- culminating in the defiant pose of him hoisting the boots in the air above his head after Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) conceded defeat two days after the election.
But Webb, like Whitman, isn't a natural fit with his national party. He's got a rural background, has made many statements in the past that are anti-affirmative action and against sexually integrating the military. His views on social policy are undefined, as his past public service record is entirely rooted in his career in the Navy.
Now Webb, who has fashioned an intellectual career as an author, has to fit in with a Democratic caucus that is much more reflexively liberal than he is. Reid noted that Webb is already showing some independence from his caucus.
"As a person, I have found him to be someone who listens and doesn't always tell me what I want to hear," Reid said, calling Webb a valued member of their party.
Republicans thought the same thing 12 years ago. The photogenic Whitman delivered a short, crisp 10-minute response to what had been a typically lengthy Clinton address. Her political horizon seemed limitless, as some moderate Republicans even trumpeted her as a potential vice presidential nominee in 1996 and 2000.
But Whitman became increasingly unpopular in the Garden State, opted against a difficult 2000 Senate race and became the Bush administration's first EPA chief in 2001. She never won over Washington conservatives and found herself relegated to the sidelines of real decision-making on environmental issues; she left the administration before the first term concluded.
Now, she's the disgruntled author of "It's My Party, Too", which also serves as the name of her political action committee.
Webb's campaign mantra was "Born Fighting."
Reid and Democrats hope those fights are with Republicans in the future, not Democrats.
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