WASHINGTON – 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 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 Ronald 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," said Webb. "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 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" and he defended his plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq in a short-term surge. He also issued a long list of domestic policy initiatives centered on such pet Democratic issues as energy independence and health care.
Newly installed majority Democrats welcomed his overtures of bipartisanship but weren't interested in changing the subject.
"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 challenged 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," said Webb, whose son is serving in the military in Iraq. "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."
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.
"We hope to begin working with him to move our country in a new direction," Reid and Pelosi said in their statement.
"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.
Seated in the gallery above the chamber was 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, attended 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.