- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Allow me to explain why I remain among the dwindling numbers of Americans — about 37 percent, according to the American Research Group — who approve of the job President Bush is doing.

The death toll of American troops and Iraqis killed by terrorist attacks keeps growing. Voters are fatigued, and Mr. Bush is sinking in the opinion polls.

Of course it is disheartening to read the casualty numbers every morning, as U.S. troops battle an often invisible enemy that also attacks Iraqis struggling to restore order there.

Antiwar types began calling the situation in Iraq a “quagmire” in the first month of the war. After three years, that term is resonating with the public. It’s a fact: This is not a quick, easy war. It has far exceeded the 43-day Persian Gulf war of 1991.

For the record, I do not mean to be critical of war coverage from journalists in Iraq. They are doing the best they can, and their reportage, no doubt, helped reshape military and political strategy for the better. I do, however, object to a Beltway mentality, seen in how Washington journalists report on the politics of the war, which reflects the apparent belief wars are supposed to go by the book. When television news anchors announce bad news, they usually frame it as a reflection on Mr. Bush, not the insurgents.

Or as British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it in a speech this week, insurgency forces “play our own media with a shrewdness that would be the envy of many a political party. Every act of carnage adds to the death toll. But somehow, it serves to indicate our responsibility for disorder, rather than the act of wickedness that causes it. For us, so much of our opinion believes that what was done in Iraq in 2003 was so wrong that it is reluctant to accept what is plainly right now.”

Mr. Bush does not have the luxury of allowing the bad news to defeat him. Yes, Mr. Bush could declare victory and pull out. After all, Saddam Hussein no longer rules. But Mr. Bush understands there can be no victory if Islamic extremists see the United States engage its powerful military, only to bolt when the public gets antsy.

You hear people lamenting there is no political leadership anymore. Yet, here it is. Asked at a White House press conference last Tuesday if he thought he had the “political capital” he claimed when he won the 2004 election, Mr. Bush answered, “I’d say I’m spending that capital on the war.” Indeed, Mr. Bush is willing to run his poll numbers into the ground to do what he believes he must.

Contrast Mr. Bush with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who changes his agenda with the wind, not because he is willing to tackle difficult work but because he needs to score some political points as he prepares to run for re-election. It makes me appreciate that Mr. Bush is constant.

Yes, at times Mr. Bush drives me crazy, too. His refusal to veto any spending bills fueled a growing deficit. The Bushies were dangerously overconfident about what it would take to win the war in Iraq. They may well have underestimated how many troops were needed in 2003.

This summer, he dropped the ball. He allowed public support for the war to soften. While I think state and local officials carry the blame for infrastructure failures — a la Katrina — Mr. Bush was flat-footed in responding to the disaster.

Not only will Mr. Bush never be as articulate as Mr. Blair, he’ll never learn how to pronounce “nuclear.” Perhaps Mr. Bush’s biggest political failing has been his inability to get Americans to dislike his critics more than they dislike him.

But I got the feeling Mr. Bush was learning the game Tuesday, when he referred to the National Security Agency wiretap controversy thus: “I did notice that nobody from the Democratic Party has actually stood up and called for the getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program. You know, if that’s what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it.”

Mr. Bush nailed it. Since his election, partisan Democrats repeatedly have voted for his proposals — Iraq, the Patriot Act — only to snipe at them when they see an opportunity to wound the Republican president. They have every right to criticize policies with which they disagree. But they were not elected to approve a war — if they weren’t willing to do their utmost to win it.

For his part, and with all his faults, the president is trying to do something great. If he succeeds, the world will be a better place. That’s what matters.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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