What defines a "good conservative" these days? A "good Republican"? The lines have been further blurred by the current spat over the Bush administration's decision to allow the shipping operations at some major American seaports to be managed by a United Arab Emirates-based company.
For columnists like myself, who've served as Republican-elected officials, and who once sweated blood to win a GOP majority in Congress, the issue of defining good conservatives is all the more agonizing.
Consider the letter I received from a reader who reacted to my suggestion that the media overreached on the Cheney shooting. I generally defended Cheney but also said he needs a change in style. The vice president's 29 percent public-approval rating might suggest I'm right.
But this reader wrote, "Your columns are becoming less and less relevant, to the extent that your left-leaning views creep in. … Your embarrassingly out-of-touch views are simply way out of place … "
I admit that as the head of a polling and political news firm, I have been forced to make myself nonpartisan.
Even so, I'll bet, Mr. Reader, that you never devoted decades of your life to working in campaigns so that Republicans could become the majority party. And I'll venture that you have never cast votes in a legislative body where being a Republican made you not just a minority but also a whipping boy.
The fact is that any poll that shows only a 29 percent support level means it's time to take a look at the conservative movement without the false comfort of rose-colored glasses.
I suspect your views are largely the product of listening to talk radio or watching your favorite "everything-is-always-great-for-Republicans" talk shows.
If you didn't like a column that gave constructive advice on how to improve Cheney's image, you won't like this one either.
Nearly every poll I've seen lately shows that even conservatives are getting tired of clumsy "we-know-it-all" Republican policies in a time of massive government debt, no real reform of the tax system, and now this seemingly wacky move to turn over the shipping management at major ports to a nation through which Sept. 11 hijackers passed on their way to killing thousands of Americans.
To all the Mr. and Ms. Conservatives out there -- to all the "Towery-is-out-of-touch" readers -- let me make it as clear as if I were writing in crayon: I am not blaming President Bush for this huge public-relations and possibly public-policy disaster on ports management. I am blaming those around him.
That the ports would remain predominantly under the control of the United States is not the only consideration. The fact is that many Americans -- many American voters -- will see this as the fox guarding the henhouse. Did anyone in the White House think about that?
So once again -- as with the Cheney shooting -- the president appears out of the loop within his own administration.
So, Mr. Conservative, who do you think does your cause more harm? A bunch of out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway advisers who clearly don't get it, or a columnist who has sat by and watched while those around the president have backed him into policies that include huge new entitlements and no genuine overhaul of the tax system?
Plus, by the White House's own admission, President Bush didn't even know about the controversial transfer of the ports until it had become a hot media topic.
I suggest, dear reader, that it's you who are out of touch. Many conservatives are among the growing number of Americans who are amazed at the level to which those who owe loyalty to a good man keep dropping the ball right on top of his head.
Do you think it was "disloyal and anti-conservative" when the GOP-controlled House released a report that said virtually every department and agency answerable to the president mishandled the response to Hurricane Katrina?
Is it "liberal" when the GOP chairman of a critical House committee vows to go all the way to an override of a Bush veto if that's what it takes to block the ports-management transfer?
Want to know who is out of touch? It's you and those like you who don't recognize that the modern Republican Party is crumbling before our eyes.
Do you think conservative icon Peggy Noonan, who suggested that Cheney should resign, is a traitor, too? If so, why in the world has she been there to write every halfway decent speech a Republican president has uttered since the mid-1980s?
The GOP grass roots needs to wake up. George W. Bush is being made to look foolish by a too-cool-for-school group of power brokers.
It's too bad the press is so jaded toward the president, because if it were my call, I would pull a play right out of the playbook of Democratic "saint" John Kennedy.
I would bring the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, up to the White House as soon as the Florida Legislature adjourns in May. I'd make him chief of staff. He's bright, in touch with the public's mood and, most of all, he would protect and promote his brother.
What George W. Bush needs right now are not armchair conservatives who want to defend the obvious. Instead, the administration needs a swift kick in the rear, and a team of true conservatives who are smart and gutsy enough to steer the Republicans away from a midterm election disaster.