Bring Back Jim Webb!

It’s hard to be a worse speaker than George W. Bush. But Kathleen Sebelius, the Democratic governor of Kansas, gave it a shot. Sebelius gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union. She’s not a good speaker—she’s obviously glued to the teleprompter, and the speech itself is awful. It’s really too bad, because this could have been a great moment for the Democrats. Bush’s speech is already being dismissed as a lame duck’s list of unfulfilled plans and missed opportunities. Democrats could have capitalized on that. But instead of trying to draw a clear election-year contrast between her party and the huge numbers of congressional Republicans who are still loyal to Bush, Sebelius mailed it in.

My colleague Jonathan Stein points out (correctly) that this is a fundamentally Obama-esque speech. It’s calling for unity; it’s calling for transcendence. But Obama’s speeches take it further than Sebelius did: he uses the force of his personality and charisma to bring people together in the service of progressive goals. Sebelius made a somewhat empty plea for the end of partisanship. It may be a product of Obama’s superior speaking ability; it may be the fact that Sebelius had only ten minutes (or thereabouts) to get her message across.

Point is: Obama has ignited something within the Democratic Party, regardless of whether or not he wins the presidency. There will doubtless be Obama wannabes (Obamannabes?) in the next few election cycles. We may have seen the first tonight.

Update: David Corn, our Washington bureau chief, has problems with the whole idea of a State of the Union “response” speech. Instead, David thinks the minority party should send someone out to riff off whatever the President says. He says it would be more spontaneous, more interesting, and more effective than sending out an apparently randomly chosen Governor, Representative, or Senator to read off a teleprompter in monotone. (Although he admits Jim Webb was good). Anyway, I agree, and not just because he’s my boss. The current format does not work.


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