For Webb, Bouquets and a Few Brickbats

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

RICHMOND, Jan. 24 -- U.S. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) earned a full day of praise -- and some tough rhetorical jabs -- for his sharply worded response Tuesday night to President Bush's State of the Union address.

Liberal bloggers, national pundits and local Virginia politicians said the freshman senator's critique of the economy and the Iraq war was among the best retorts to Bush's administration they could remember.

"In office only three weeks, [Webb] managed to convey a muscular liberalism -- with personal touches -- that left President Bush's ordinary address in the dust," Jonathan Alter said on Newsweek's Web site.

In his speech, Webb ignored the laundry list of issues that many of his predecessors have felt compelled to mention in such responses. Instead, he focused on only two issues: the economic divide between rich and poor and the difficulties in Iraq. He campaigned on the same themes last year.

Jeff Cohen, writing on the Huffington Post, a liberal blog, cited the nine-minute speech's "stirring appeal, both progressive and patriotic," and said it would have broad appeal for "swing voters, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, even Republican leaners."

Not all of the reaction was positive. Conservatives scoffed at Webb's less-than-animated demeanor. One blog headline commented on Webb's constant seriousness with the headline: "Dem Response: Countdown to Webb's Aneurysm."

And some assailed his adherence to the Democratic orthodoxy, especially on the Iraq war.

"Senator Webb's logic was as incoherent as his language (the two are often related)," wrote Michael J. Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, also on the Newsweek site. "No 'precipitous withdrawal' -- but retreat 'in short order.' Fight the war on terror vigorously -- except where the terrorists have chosen to fight it. It is, perhaps, a good thing that James Webb earned a job as senator. As a speechwriter he would starve."

Webb, who has written several books, said in a radio interview Wednesday morning that he threw away the first draft of the speech suggested by Democratic leaders in Congress. He wrote a new draft that became the speech he delivered Tuesday night.

The speech did not specifically offer a solution to the war or attack the president's plan to send an additional 21,000 troops to Iraq. But Wednesday, Webb issued a statement saying that he supports a bipartisan resolution opposing the plan for such an increase.

"It is inverted political logic for people to say that we need to continue in this direction for the good of our troops," Webb said in the statement.

But Webb did receive praise from some conservatives. Columnist David Brooks called Webb's speech "intense," "eloquent" and "forceful." Liberal counterpart Mark Shields said "it was a strong, tough statement, and surprising in its intensity."

Reaction among Virginians was similar. Lawmakers in Richmond from both parties said they generally liked the speech, as did Northern Virginia Democrats, who were key to Webb's victory over incumbent Sen. George Allen last year.

Jessica Smith, Webb's communications director, said the senator "is encouraged to see that his response -- with its themes of economic fairness and affirmative leadership in Iraq -- is being well received across party lines."

"He doesn't show a whole lot of emotion and ability to communicate to the audience," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "I don't think that matters. I think that's a mark of the fact that he's genuine. I find his personality refreshing. I find the content of what he has to say very persuasive."

And Webb's performance fired up the young liberals who campaigned for him last year. A group of them -- who called themselves the Webb Brigade during the election -- gathered at Bailey's Pub and Grille in Arlington on Tuesday night to watch the speech.

"To the people who have become such loyal followers of Jim, we're motivated by the fact that he's willing to fight for what he believes in," said Jim McBride, 32, who organized the party. "We are waiting for the Democratic Party to fight the way Jim is fighting."

Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.

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