President George W. Bush's poll numbers -- even among Republicans who are happy about tax cuts and the judicial appointments -- scream trouble. Trace the dismal numbers to three things -- the war in Iraq, spending, and Bush's perceived soft stance on illegal aliens.
Let's go over them.
As to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration argues that mainstream media ignores good news and focuses on the bad. General Barry McCaffrey, who worked as a division commander in the first Persian Gulf War before becoming President Clinton's drug czar, recently returned from Iraq. McCaffrey reported his findings in a memo to his West Point colleagues.
McCaffrey wrote, "The Iraqi army is real, growing, and willing to fight. They now have lead action of a huge and rapidly expanding area and population. The battalion level formations are in many cases excellent -- most are adequate … This is simply a brilliant success story. We need at least two to five more years of U.S. partnership and combat backup to get the Iraqi Army ready to stand on its own. The interpersonal relationships between Iraqi Army units and their U.S. trainers are very positive and genuine."
McCaffrey pointed out many problems, including: The Iraqi Army is "very badly equipped with only a few light vehicles, small arms, most with body armor and one or two uniforms." "… The corruption and lack of capability of the [Iraqi] ministries will require several years of patient coaching and officer education in values as well as the required competencies." "… The U.S. Inter-Agency Support for our strategy in Iraq is grossly inadequate." However, McCaffrey concluded, "There is no reason why the U.S. cannot achieve our objectives in Iraq. Our aim must be to create a viable federal state under the rule of law which does not: enslave its own people, threaten its neighbors, or produce weapons of mass destruction. "
A big reason that many turned sour on the war rests on the preposterous assumption that "Bush lied, people died." Remember the near unanimity with which experts believed that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and that he intended to pursue the development of a nuclear bomb. Even former President Bill Clinton, on "Larry King Live," four months after the coalition troops entered Iraq, said, "[I]t is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons. We might have destroyed them in '98. We tried to, but we sure as heck didn't know it because we never got to go back in there."
As to spending, Bush's critics properly point out that domestic spending increased at a rate faster than any President since Lyndon Baines Johnson. But didn't candidate Bush, in 2000, announce his goal for a prescription benefit bill for seniors? He called himself the "education President" and promised an even greater federal government role in education. Recall that Ronald Reagan, in 1980, promised to shut down the Department of Education. If Bush's critics called his desire to expand the government heresy, they nevertheless supported him -- twice.
Many of Bush's supporters sat in silence over, to name some, the Farm Bill, the Energy Bill, the Highway Bill, the use of tax dollars for faith-based initiatives, tariffs on steel, tariffs on lumber, No Child Left Behind, the expansion of the Clinton-era "volunteer" AmeriCorps program, the involvement of the federal government in the Terri Schiavo case, increases in the education programs, Title I and Head Start (despite real questions about their effectiveness), the use of federal dollars for embryonic stem-cell research, and others.
As to the issue of illegal aliens, many conservatives consider Bush a sellout and beholden to corporate interests. Here again, what did Bush supporters expect? Republicans wanted the then-governor of Texas to run for President. Why? Governor Bush unseated a popular incumbent governor with 10 percent and 24 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, respectively. Texans re-elected Bush in 1998, this time with 30 percent black and nearly 50 percent Hispanic support. Did Bush's supporters truly expect him to urge an "enforcement first" policy, without dealing with the status of the eleven-plus million illegal aliens here, or without a temporary guest worker program?
So, what does this all mean?
On the most important responsibility of any president -- national security -- Bush deserves tremendous credit for the War on Terror and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. After Sept. 11, Bush properly turned our response to terrorism from a law-enforcement matter to a military matter. We are at war.
But on domestic spending matters, Bush again shows that Republicans often talk the talk and fail to walk the walk. His father said, "Read my lips: no new taxes" -- and then raised them. Yet many Republicans, thirsting for victory, supported Bush-43's call for a prescription benefit bill for seniors -- the biggest expansion of Medicare since its inception in 1965.
Moral to the story: Sticking to your principles equals good policy and good politics.