Last year, Democrats chose newly elected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush’s State of the Union address. Kaine barely mentioned the war in Iraq and mostly spoke about domestic issues, just as President Bush did tonight. He was a red state Governor who won with a smile on his face.

This year Democrats–perhaps reflecting their newfound confidence–chose another Virginian to rebut Bush, but one who’s not afraid to go toe to toe with the President, both on domestic policy and matters of war and peace. Unlike Kaine, Webb is more likely to scowl than smile. His implicit message is that serious times deserve serious men.

Webb’s upset of George Allen and now infamous exchange with President Bush at the White House in November set the tone for the new Congress. When asked by Bush “How’s your boy?” a reference to Webb’s 24-year-old son serving as a Marine in Iraq, Webb responded: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.”

“That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said. “How’s your boy?”

“That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President,” Webb said, ending the conversation.

The moment was a deeply symbolic one, proving that President Bush’s days of ruling like a king had come to an end. Democrats could be blunt, uncompromising and outspoken. During his campaign, the former Republican Secretary of the Navy “transformed into one of the unlikeliest protest candidates ever,” Bob Moser wrote of Webb last October. Now he’s becoming a similarly unlikely spokesman for his party.

In his speech tonight, Webb emphasized two issues that brought him and so many other new Democrats to Congress: the rising inequality between rich and poor and the toll the war in Iraq has taken on this nation.

Webb is a keen student of history and the strongest part of his speech came when he invoked the leadership of presidents past.

“Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves ‘as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other.’ And he did something about it.

As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. ‘When comes the end?’ asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.”

Take just one instance that often gets forgotten these days: New Orleans. At the beginning of his speech Webb said that he hoped the President was “serious about…restoring the vitality of New Orleans.” In fact, tonight Bush conveniently failed to mention Hurricane Katrina. “I do not see myself voting for any more money for these reconstruction and economic projects inside Iraq when we have places like New Orleans that haven’t gotten help,” Webb said recently. Leadership–both foreign and domestic–Webb realizes, begins at home.