The President was a shadow of his former self, and his limp manner induced visible drowsiness in the audience. He did not make any of those cocky sideways smiles after delivering a zinger. In fact, he did not have any zingers to deliver. George W. Bush’s State of the Union address was a tired lunge backward toward the amiable, compassionate, cooperative leader he once claimed to be. Too late. Nobody believes him anymore. A stale performance does not make him more convincing.

Democrats, on the other hand, were well behaved, reflecting more maturity than Republicans displayed twelve years ago when they became the Congressional majority. The Democrats rose decorously again and again–needlessly often it seemed at times–in the ritual of standing ovations.

They did not boo when Bush offered a less bellicose plea for his war strategy in Iraq. (Instead, within twenty-four hours, the Democrats pushed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a nonbinding resolution calling Bush’s plans to increase troop strength in Iraq “not in the national interest.”) Nor did the Dems hoot derisively when Bush announced his new interest in solving the healthcare crisis (his plan is a nonstarter–taxing people with good health insurance to pay for those who lack any). Democrats did not cheer with mocking enthusiasm when Bush promised a balanced federal budget by 2012. Or when he referred to the 20 percent reduction in gasoline consumption he foresees in 2017.

These and other advance-dated Bush promises simply reminded listeners that, by golly, George W. Bush will be long gone by then. That was the only good news in his speech. Unfortunately, he is not gone yet. His presidency is in ruin, but Bush remains in power and still quite dangerous to the Republic.

Yet, after Bush finished, a remarkable thing occurred. Americans got a refreshing glimpse of the possible state of the union that lies ahead for the country. A newly elected senator, Jim Webb of Virginia, delivered the Democratic Party’s response, and his message left the President in a tepid pool on the floor. (For another glimpse of a more promising future, read Bob Moser’s “The Way Down South,” on page 11, on how Democrats can start winning in Dixie.)

Webb was direct, substantive and beckoning–naming the true conditions that afflict the nation now and promising only that his party intends to confront them. The destructive inequalities embedded in our supposedly healthy economy, Webb said, remind him of the age of robber barons a century ago when a Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, bravely challenged corporate influence and irresponsible wealth. The war in Iraq recalls the bloody stalemate of the Korean War in 1952, when another Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, had the courage to end it. Webb suggested that this President needs to find similar courage now. “If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.”

The force and clarity of Webb’s thinking–including the need to restore New Orleans, a subject Bush didn’t even mention–provided a devastating contrast with the President’s soggy focus. Senator Webb, in fact, is more advanced than many fellow Democrats on the seminal issues of economic injustice and our deformed foreign policy. Indeed, some Democrats remain closely aligned with the very interests Webb wants to confront. But it speaks well for party leaders that the senator was given this national pulpit to speak so bluntly on behalf of Democrats.

“A star was born,” PBS commentator Mark Shields remarked after Webb’s performance. We agree. We hope further that a new kind of gutsy, smart, reform-minded Democratic Party is being born as well.