Democrats blistered President Bush’s war policy Tuesday night, challenging him to redeem the nation’s credibility — and his own — with an immediate shift toward a diplomatic end to the bloody conflict in Iraq.
“The president took us into this war recklessly,” the Democrats’ chosen messenger, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, said in his prepared response to Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening. “We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed.”
Webb, a Vietnam veteran who was Navy secretary during Republican President Reagan’s administration, called for a new direction.
“Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos,” Webb said. “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.”
Bush offered no such plan in his speech, nor did he defend his proposed surge of 21,500 troops to Iraq before the most unfriendly joint session of Congress of his tenure.
Instead, the president focused on making the case that “failure would be grievous and far-reaching.” He also issued a long list of domestic policy initiatives centered on such pet Democratic issues as energy independence and health care.
Webb, Pelosi, Reid throw down gauntlet
Newly installed majority Democrats had made clear since Friday that they believe Bush no longer controls the nation’s policy agenda, especially on Iraq.
“Unfortunately, tonight the president demonstrated he has not listened to Americans’ single greatest concern: the war in Iraq,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a joint statement. “We will continue to hold him accountable for changing course in Iraq.”
In a speech written himself and previewed by senior Democratic officials, Webb, a freshman senator, acknowledged some of Bush’s domestic policy proposals. “We in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious” about improving education, health care and speeding the recovery of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, he said.
Webb also prodded Bush to support the House-passed minimum wage increase and nurture an economy that restores the middle class. And he said Democrats would work with Bush to promote energy independence.
But he chose harsher rhetoric for what he framed Bush’s abuse of the public’s loyalty, trust and welfare in the rush to war.
“The war’s costs to our nation have been staggering,” he said. “Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism, and especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.”
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a presumptive candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination, was also tough on Bush's overtures.
“The president offered some serious proposals tonight on two issues — energy and health care — that we all agree must be addressed,” said Obama in a statement. “I'm glad he did, and I think it's important to respond in a constructive way. But the last election proved that politics-by-slogan and poll-tested sound bites aren't going to cut it with the American people anymore, and that's why the real test of leadership is not what the president said to Congress tonight, but how he works with Congress to find real solutions to the problems we face.
“Most Americans believe that escalation will not bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end, and that's why I've proposed not just a troop cap, but a phased redeployment that will start bringing our troops home,” Obama said.
Dems to Bush: Partisanship not an option
Democrats also hammered home a message that achieving bipartisanship must be as much a part of Bush’s agenda as proposals on the war, energy independence and health care.
“It will be clear to us whether he’s ready to work cooperatively to do that or if he’s saying, ‘I’m the decider,”’ Pelosi said, quoting Bush’s famous retort on Iraq.
She and Reid have rejected any suggestion that Democrats would withhold funding from the war in an effort to force Bush’s hand.
Webb, whose son is now serving in the military in Iraq, in a suggestion-veiled threat, said Bush should take “the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world.”
“If he does, we will join him,” Webb said. “If he does not, we will be showing him the way.”
The speech capped the Democrats’ effort to have the first, most frequent and last words on the president’s annual address.
Health care and the stem cell question
In the gallery above the chamber, the Democrats had reserved places as a reminder of a key factor in the Republicans’ loss of congressional control and the lone veto of Bush’s presidency. Actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, was attending as the guest of Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who is a quadriplegic, Langevin’s spokeswoman said.
Both men have health problems that some scientists believe might someday be cured or treated by embryonic stem cell research. Bush last year vetoed a bill that would have allowed taxpayer money to speed up those studies, arguing that public funds should not be spent on research that destroys budding human life.
Fox then appeared in several campaign commercials for candidates that support the bill, sparking a controversy and helping tilt the election in the Democrats’ favor. The House earlier this month passed the same bill by a margin far short of the two-thirds majority required to override a second veto.
After Bush's address, New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the chairman of the National Governors' Association's Health and Human Services Committee, spoke in a statement about the healthcare proposal put forward by the president.
“I welcome the president's focus on the ever-growing crisis of the uninsured and underinsured in our country. The 46 million uninsured individuals, including 1.2 million persons here in New Jersey, deserve our immediate attention. The President's comments are helpful, and I am certain other governors would agree this should be a starting point for a bipartisan discussion to finally address this pressing issue.”