"The president took us into this war recklessly," the Democrats' chosen messenger, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, said in his prepared 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 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." He also issued a long list of domestic policy initiatives centered on such pet Democratic issues as energy independence and health care.
With his job approval rating at a new low of 28 percent in the, Mr. Bush's overall agenda for the speech was twofold: Present himself as a leader with a sincere desire to work across party lines on practical solutions and pressure Democratic leaders to either go along or offer viable alternatives.
Newly installed majority Democrats had made clear since Friday that they believe Bush no longer controls the nation's policy agenda, especially on Iraq.
The Democrats most likely chose Webb to give the rebuttal because his military credentials are above reproach, and because he has a son serving in Iraq, reported CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric.
"They did not want the president to draw attention away from the war. They want to keep the focus on this war because they believe it is George Bush's war," said CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.
He added that Webb did not pull punches. "He really ripped him tonight, saying he led us into this war recklessly. That's pretty tough talk."
In a speech written himself and previewed by senior Democratic officials, Webb, a freshman senator, acknowledged some of Bush's domestic policy proposals. "We in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious" about improving education, health care and speeding the recovery of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, he said.
Webb also 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," he said. "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.
"It will be clear to us whether he's ready to work cooperatively to do that or if he's saying, 'I'm the decider,"' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, quoting Bush's famous retort on Iraq.
She and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have rejected any suggestion that Democrats would withhold funding from the war in an effort to force Bush's hand.
Webb, whose son is now serving in the military in Iraq, in a suggestion-veiled threat, said Bush should take "the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world."
"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.