- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

The conventional wisdom seems to be the Democrats will put in a good showing in the midterm elections next November. Maybe so. But with 10 months to go, President Bush, slammed in the polls for the last year, is mounting an impressive comeback. The only question is whether he can continue along this recovery path. I wouldn’t bet against him.

In numerous speeches and pro-active press conferences, Mr. Bush closed the year 2005 in campaign style, shifting from commander in chief to salesman in chief to merchandise and market his successes.

Even while acknowledging some miscues, he answered his critics by hammering hard on an Iraq strategy for victory — not retreat. Domestically, he at last highlighted the strength of the U.S. economy, undoubtedly the single most underrated good-news story of 2005.

Polling data show this strategy is working. Mr. Bush’s favorables have moved up about 10 points to nearly 50 percent in only a few weeks. A string of positive economic reports bolstered the president’s case at home, while a third successful election in Iraq underscored the potential for optimism there.

The Democrats, meanwhile, help Mr. Bush and the GOP by reminding the electorate they remain soft and untrustworthy on national security and the terror war, while policyless and obstructionist on budget and tax issues.

In particular, the Murtha-Pelosi obsession with immediate troop withdrawal in Iraq plays poorly nationwide — even splitting the Democrats internally. Worse, the Democrat’s American Civil Liberties Union-type response to reports of National Security Agency eavesdropping without court warrants is a huge mistake. The latest Rasmussen poll reports 64 percent of respondents believe the NSA should be allowed to tap cell phones and e-mails to intercept communications between suspected foreign and domestic terrorists.

The key word here? National security. The key thought here? Carping Democrats are not to be trusted. The key political issue here? There’s a good reason the U.S. has not been attacked on its own soil since September 11, 2001: Tough security policies by the entire U.S. government, at home and abroad, designed and administered by the Bush administration, are in place.

To build on their recent polling successes, as well as policy gains, the Bushies need to articulate a few basic points and package them into a national message. In other words, they must nationalize the midterm elections of 2006 just as they did in 2002 (when they discussed terror war security) and as Gingrich Republicans did in 1994 (when smaller government, lower taxes, and no socialized health care took center stage).

Staying the course in Iraq (where victory in democratization and reconstruction is increasingly possible), withdrawing troops as the generals believe prudent, and maintaining tough security measures to guard the homeland (by way of the Patriot Act, etc.) is the right wartime prescription. The Democrats will only be able to counter with more negativism and defeatism.

On the economy, Mr. Bush’s pro-growth strategy should stress large-scale budget cuts (such as, for the first time, real cuts in pork-barrel spending, including corporate welfare) and permanent tax relief to sustain economic growth.

The Democrats have no budget-cutting policy, nor are they capable of developing one. On tax cuts they have no answer except the tiresome mantra of tax increases for the rich.

Citizens Against Government Waste calls 2005 a record year for pork. The group identified 13,997 pork projects in the fiscal 2005 appropriations bills, costing taxpayers $27.3 billion, up 31 percent over fiscal 2004. These are sickening facts. The president must work overtime to erase them in 2006 and truly produce a taxpayer protection budget.

If Mr. Bush embraces such a Mike Pence approach, championed by the House Republican Study Committee, of shifting big-government conservatism back to limited-government conservatism, he will rejuvenate the Republican base.

Moving government out of the way of the free-enterprise capitalist economy, while strengthening after-tax rewards for work and investment, is the best prescription for long-run growth. Clear progress on budget-deficit reduction will also impress independent voters, as will lower unemployment and continued job creation.

On both war and prosperity, Mr. Bush can craft a national message that will bring a Republican win, or at least a break-even result, in the 2006 midterms. There’s also immigration, where Mr. Bush must stand his ground by strengthening border security law enforcement without harming the legitimate needs of American businesses. He must also stand firm on confirmation of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court and protecting the unborn and traditional marriage. Aggressive campaigning on all these themes will do the trick.

Fundamentally, President Bush must rally the nation to his big-picture themes of victory, optimism, growth and progress. Democrats are pessimistic, negative and defeatist, so the contrast couldn’t be clearer.

If the president produces the policy merchandise and makes the national sale, 2006 could be a very surprising political year where once again the conventional wisdom proves wrong.

Lawrence Kudlow is host of CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company” and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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