Brad FriedmanIf Congress wants to be treated like a co-equal branch of government, it has to act like one, and Bush’s State of the Union address is the perfect time to start. At right, Sen. Jim Webb, who will deliver the Democratic response to the president’s speech.

I don’t know how long the tradition of an opposition party response to the president’s State of the Union address has been going on. But for as long as I can recall, it has been a drab, embarrassing, cringe-worthy effort by whichever party found itself unlucky enough to not be in the White House.

Over the last six years, the Bush administration has run roughshod over its coequal congressional partners, stealing extraordinary power for itself at every turn with the shortsighted blessings of Republican chums in the House and Senate as an all-but-castrated Democratic Party stood quietly by in the background for the most part.

This year, the Dems have smartly tapped freshman Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to deliver the Democratic response to Bush’s State of the Union address. No simpering softy he, Webb has already shown he has the stones to look Bush straight in the eye and deliver as good as he gets in the face of a classic Dubya bully-boy alpha-dog snarl.

But no matter how much clout, moral authority or gigantic balls the former Reagan Navy secretary and proud father of a son serving in Iraq may have, the conventional stagecraft of the SOTU and its Democratic/Republican response simply stacks the cards insurmountably against the opposition party and — as is likely again this year — only serves to reinforce a perceived, if undeserved, imbalance between the two parties and between two of the branches of government.

Just moments after the predictable but rousing reception given to any president during a SOTU address — featuring long and loud applause break after applause break and the undeniable excitement of a speech delivered on live television to a packed and contentious house — there is no way that a one-camera opposition party response delivered in an all but empty room turned TV studio can ever hope to measure up to the pomp and circumstance of the president’s address. That fact would be true even if Superman was selected to deliver the opposition party response.

It’s time to make a change.

And it’s time for the Dems to take back just some of the White House’s self-proclaimed empirical majesty in the bargain.

With the Dems newly in control of both houses of Congress and with a healthy majority of the country now clearly backing them as the best hope for America’s future on virtually all fronts, and with a courageous man who knows how to kill before a live crowd, it’s time they push back and reclaim some of their rightful constitutional power — public perception being as integral to that power as almost anything else.

Controlling both the House and the Senate, the Dems can make the rules for both chambers on how Congress is to be run, as I understand it.

To that end, unless there is something more than merely “tradition” that I’m unaware of and that keeps them from doing so, the Dems ought to give Webb the same platform — the full joint session of Congress — to deliver their party’s response to the SOTU.

Webb should deliver his address to the same jampacked and receptive chamber on the floor of Congress that the president used … and in which the opposition party, proudly owning majorities in both chambers of a co-equal branch of government, now deserves to lay out its vision for the country.

As president of the Senate, Dick Cheney, of course, should be invited to keep his seat during the address behind the podium and next to the speaker of the House. It’ll be up to him if he wishes to show the appropriate respect and to stay for the speech and join in the polite applause at appropriate moments, or if he chooses to shamefully abandon his post and leave the on-camera seat empty behind Webb as the senator gives his address to the same pomp, circumstance and applause breaks as afforded to his coequal executive branch representative just moments earlier.

For the first time in its history, the opposition response to the SOTU can be more than merely an embarrassing, limp, pro forma, predictable “hey, don’t forget about us!” rejoinder that the TV networks begrudgingly carry after most viewers have already changed the channel or moved on to other things. Instead, the response can truly carry the message — from a level playing field — of how the Democrats envision the brave new world and their plans for bettering the state of our union.

I believe all it would take is a decision by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep the joint session open after Bush’s address, and for the floor to then be given to Webb to deliver the party’s response to all in attendance. I hope that both will consider doing so.

The Democratic Party was placed into power last November to take back America. Webb is the perfect representation of that reclamation of power. The State of the Union address gives the Dems, via Webb’s response, the perfect moment to make their intentions crystal clear to the nation. But they need to give Webb the same field graciously granted to Bush.

In doing so, the Dems could finally show what they stand for — and that they will no longer be cowed — instead of merely and meekly serving as bit players and extras in background support for a grand show that Bush no longer deserves.

The battle for the balance of power in this country was long ago turned into a battle measured by which party is perceived by the country as “the toughest guy.” The Dems finally have such a tough guy in Jim Webb. And he’s ready to go. The way the Dems choose to use the golden opportunity before them will probably say as much about their ability to lead in a dangerous, threatening world as anything else. Will they now have the cajones to finally stand up to the GOP bully as embodied by George W. Bush to reclaim their equal time so long deserved? Or at least as afforded to them by the Constitution? We’ll soon find out.

Originally published at The Huffington Post and The BRAD BLOG.

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