Democrats have a new rock star, and I'm not talking about Barack Obama -- the most recent victim of the Clinton smear machine. I refer to Virginia senator James Webb, who delivered the Democrats' response to the president's State of the Union address.
Ever since 9-11, Democrats have been searching for that magical formula (or politician) that would restore their foreign policy credentials during this time of war. Given their well-earned reputation for weakness on defense, this is no small order.
You will recall the pathetically forced military imagery accompanying Sen. John Kerry's acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Kerry's speech, from the bogus opening line: "Reporting for Duty," was a calculated sales pitch aimed at convincing TV viewers they should disregard his and his party's antiwar record and listen, instead, to their empty promises to be tough on terror.
For liberals, there was nothing contradictory in this picture. Kerry was a decorated war vet, and those credentials -- putting aside the credible challenges against them -- would trump all anti-military behavior in which he had engaged from the time he returned from Vietnam.
In the end, neither Kerry nor his party were able to pull that off -- not just because of the Swift Boat Vets, but because even the "erudite" John Kerry himself could not square the many dovish circles he'd drawn in the past.
Since Kerry's defeat, Democrats have further ratcheted up their criticism of President Bush and the war. They finally hit pay dirt, having regained control of Congress, even without offering any alternative plan for Iraq.
The closest thing to a plan they have is their uniform agreement that the Iraq war is unwinnable and that we should withdraw our troops in short order. But we are not allowed to accuse them of calling for a precipitous withdrawal (which they are), nor to suggest they have abandoned victory as a goal (which they have). Even their liberal friends in the mainstream media grudgingly concede they haven't quite gotten their act together yet on Iraq.
But the Democrats must sense they won't be able to prolong this charade forever. Electing a wartime commander in chief in 2008 will be tougher than electing a majority of congressmen whose campaigns also involved local issues. Democrats still have to prove that despite their history of softness on terror they can be trusted as primary guardians of our national security.
Enter James Webb. Who better to square a circle than a man whose resume contains at least two oxymorons: He's a "conservative Democrat" and a "muscular liberal"?
No less a liberal than Newsweek's Jonathan Alter gushed over Webb's SOTU rebuttal, writing, "Virginia Sen. James Webb … managed to convey a muscular liberalism -- with personal touches -- that left President Bush's ordinary address in the dust."
It matters not to Alter that Webb is advocating our near-immediate withdrawal from Iraq (how muscular will Osama bin Laden find that?). What counts is that Webb's dad was a vet, he's a vet, and his son's currently serving in Iraq. And like a good liberal, Alter invoked the chickenhawk mantra, saying that unlike Bush and Cheney, Webb served in Vietnam.
Oh, yes, and "unlike fellow veteran John Kerry, he has a military bearing and nonelitist tone that is appealing." By "military bearing," Alter means that Webb doesn't look like a perfectly coiffed "wussie," but a tough military guy, whose appearance also trumps his dovish policies.
Another liberal columnist, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, was similarly ecstatic about Webb's speech and the apparent toughness he displayed. Dionne wrote, "Webb's performance was a salutary sign that Democrats might just be getting over the battered party syndrome that has left so many of them terrified of saying exactly what is on their minds."
Sorry, E.J., but to call a party that has been mercilessly bludgeoning President Bush for six years running "battered," is like, well, calling liberals "muscular." Democrats can't have it both ways. Either they're going to join us in the war on terror, or they aren't. Either they're going to put teeth in their antiwar Senate resolutions, or they're not. It's one thing to shadowbox and talk tough. It's another to get in the ring and start swinging.
Democrats must know deep down that their candidates' combat credentials and tough demeanor -- not to mention personal nastiness -- are not going to serve as substitutes for offering policies promoting the national interest, for which they can be held to account. Even the irascible, ex-Republican Jim Webb is not the Democrats' foreign policy panacea.