I’m less sure that the backward-looking focus on the decisions of 2003 made much sense, or that the anti-Wall Street rhetoric plays well. Let me put it this way: This is not the speech that Rahm Emanuel or Chuck Schumer would have written. And while Webb is a more compelling figure than they are, they’re the better political strategists. ~Ramesh Ponnuru

On the contrary, the focus on 2003, to the extent that there was one, was a smart move.  The list of national security and military figures Sen. Webb rattled off, while familiar to pundits and bloggers, reintroduced the viewing public (if there was much of one) to the serious and credible arguments and predictions made–and ignored by the administration and its supporters–prior to the war.  The list summed up fairly quickly the most damning assessment that can be made about the GOP and Bush.  Webb was saying, “Iraq shows that the Republicans are not the party of responsible, intelligent foreign policy, and here are the witnesses.”  Important parts of the Webb response were aimed at saying, “The Republicans are reckless in foreign affairs, whereas we Democrats have better judgement.”  Speaking of the party as a whole, this is absurd, but that is why Webb being the one to give the response was a very wise move.  Had someone like an Emanuel or a Schumer given the response, the appeal would have been a harder sell, since Schumer voted for the authorisation of force (as did most ambitious, “national” Democrats) and Emanuel is a reliable DLC man when it comes to interventionist foreign policy.  Emanuel and Schumer are better political strategists, but mainly in the context of running election campaigns–their judgement on the politics of how to handle policy questions seems questionable at best.  Emanuel and Schumer represent the half-hearted defense approach: they concede the substance of a policy, such as the Iraq war, but quibble about the details.  Webb obviously represents a more stern, confrontational approach, and it is to have more vigorous opposition and confrontation with Mr. Bush when Congress believes him to be in the wrong that the public voted out the GOP majority.    

Webb makes the message of responsible Democratic foreign policy sound remotely plausible, because he actually did have better judgement than the administration in assessing the pitfalls of an invasion and was on record saying so in 2002.  But he notes his opposition almost in passing, emphasising the numerous credible critics of the then-proposed invasion.  The nods to his family’s tradition of military service was a straightforward way of saying: “My people have been fighting your wars because of our patriotism, but you keep misleading and mistreating us and now we’re mighty angry.”  It was a blunt way to do away with the standard “weak” Democrat image, but it will probably resonate with a lot of tired and frustrated military families.  It will definitely resonate with other tired and frustrated citizens who, as the Senator rightly noted, have patiently endured four years of mismanagement in this war.  It was also another way of saying, I think, “My Democratic Party is not the party of the wine-and-cheesers and the cultural radicals–it is a party for the patriotic, put-upon Middle American.”  

One might think that Webb’s knocks on Wall Street and the old Wall Street/Main Street dichotomy wouldn’t go over well, but then one would need to forget election results in places such as Ohio and Pennsylvania where record high Dow closes mean very little for a great many people.  The nods to Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt and the remarks about wages all tap into instinctive distrust of the moneyed interest in Democratic constituencies.  They also probably appeal to the American sense of fair play.  Perhaps some will say Webb is dressing up as a question of “fairness” things that have nothing to do with what is actually fair or right, but it seems almost certain that appealing to that sense of fair play will have a receptive audience.  As the passage of numerous minimum wage referenda around the nation shows, that element of Webb’s response will likely go over very well.   

Webb’s response was a solid performance for his first nationwide address.  It was hardly the rapture-inducing event that some Democrats seem to have made it out to be, but neither was it the awkward, anxious bumbling Republicans have portrayed it as being.  Obviously, he was following the teleprompter closely, which seems to be the natural hang-up for those starting out in making televised speeches of this kind, but compared to his less-than-enthralling stump performances last year it was a clear improvement and a success in laying out the basic Democratic theme, which seems to be, “We’re on your side.” 

Of course, I don’t think the Democrats, a few individuals like Webb excepted perhaps, are on “our” side at all, but that is the message they need to convey to continue to capitalise on the disenchantment and disgust with the GOP.

Update: Reihan has a short post on the “tribune” of the “new populists.”  I can think of someone who is probably very pleased by last night’s performance.