- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Recent poll data show President Bush running behind John Kerry. Although the spread is not large, some liberals say this proves the failure of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy. I don’t agree. His political problem is domestic, not in Iraq.

My observation is there were many more conservatives opposed to the Iraq war than liberals thought. There is a powerful strain of noninterventionism within the conservative movement and the Republican Party — often caricatured as “isolationism.” Liberals have lately discovered that these people exist, which leads them to think opposition to the war has grown a lot among conservatives. In fact, they are only discovering something that was there all along.

This does not mean support for the war has not fallen among conservatives. There are many like myself, who initially supported the war and are now dismayed by the lack of weapons of mass destruction and the extremely poor postwar planning, who now have deep misgivings about our support.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases, this has not caused us to turn against the president and toward Mr. Kerry. Rather, it has only caused us to have regret and to wish President Bush would simply say mistakes may have been made, instead of pretending everything has gone as planned. This is an untenable position.

I think it is possible to say the war was a mistake — based on what we know today — without thinking we should pull out. We have made a commitment that we must see through — a view Mr. Kerry in fact supports. I have heard nothing from him suggesting an immediate pullout is desirable, perhaps to the dismay of his own supporters. He knows too well supporting such a position would doom his electoral chances.

Instead, Mr. Kerry has mainly attacked Mr. Bush for starting the war in the first place. Moreover, his principal line of attack is not that the administration lied about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as many on the left-wing fringe believe, but only that it did not have international support, a weak criticism given the disdain most Americans have for the United Nations, the French and other foreign critics of all we ever do.

Therefore, I do not believe Mr. Kerry’s poll gains resulted from Iraq. Rather, I think Mr. Bush is paying for abandoning conservative principles too many times over the last 3 years, which has sapped his support in the Republican base.

Poll data support this analysis. According to the latest poll by ABC News and The Washington Post, almost all of Mr. Bush’s decline in support has come from his base. He is not losing support from moderates, nor is Mr. Kerry gaining at his expense. Rather, Mr. Bush is simply losing his own people.

I believe this has nothing to do with Iraq. I think it is because conservatives have slowly come to the conclusion he is really not one of them. It is the cumulative effect of a great many issues dating back to the 2000 campaign. Among them:

• President Bush supported “compassionate conservatism,” which implied unqualified conservatism is uncompassionate, as liberals have always charged.

• He rammed through Congress an education bill written by Ted Kennedy that did almost nothing to improve education. It just threw more money at the problem. And now liberals complain he didn’t throw enough.

• He signed a campaign finance “reform” bill that almost all conservatives view as blatantly unconstitutional, the Supreme Court’s endorsement notwithstanding.

• He has supported vast increases in domestic spending, including a huge, utterly unjustified pork barrel and an unconscionable expansion of Medicare, adding trillions of dollars to unfunded U.S. liabilities. And he has asked for more spending on ridiculous programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, which ought to be abolished, not expanded.

• Although he twisted arms strenuously to get the Medicare drug bill passed, President Bush has done almost nothing to get conservative judges confirmed.

• He has been ambivalent on trade — some days a free trader, other days a protectionist. He has succeeded only in alienating all sides on this issue.

I could go on. But the point is there are many reasons for conservatives to be upset with Mr. Bush that have nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq.

Fortunately for him, John Kerry is worse on every one of these issues. Imprisoned by the left wing of his party, there is no possibility he will pick up the votes of disaffected conservatives — even those who strenuously oppose the Iraq war. In the end, there is no place except the Republican Party for them to go.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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