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Pundits Renounce The President
Among Conservative Voices, Discord

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

For 10 minutes, the talk show host grilled his guests about whether "George Bush's mental weakness is damaging America's credibility at home and abroad." For 10 minutes, the caption across the bottom of the television screen read, "IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT'?"

But the host was no liberal media elitist. It was Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman turned MSNBC political pundit. And his answer to the captioned question was hardly "no." While other presidents have been called stupid, Scarborough said: "I think George Bush is in a league by himself. I don't think he has the intellectual depth as these other people."

These have been tough days politically for President Bush, what with his popularity numbers mired in the 30s and Republican candidates distancing themselves as elections near. He can no longer even rely as much on once-friendly voices in the conservative media to stand by his side, as some columnists and television commentators lose faith in his leadership and lose heart in the war in Iraq.

While most conservative media figures have not abandoned Bush, influential opinion-makers increasingly have raised questions, expressed doubts or attacked the president outright, particularly on foreign policy, on which he has long enjoyed their strongest support. In some cases, they have complained that Bush has drifted away from their shared principles; in other cases, they think it is the implementation that has fallen short. In most instances, Iraq figures prominently.

"Conservatives for a long time were in protective mode, wanting to emphasize the progress in Iraq to contrast what they felt was an unfair attack on the war by the Democrats and media and other sources," Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, said in an interview. "But there's more of a sense now that things are on a downward trajectory, and more of a willingness to acknowledge it and pressure the administration to react to it."

Lowry's magazine offers a powerful example. "It is time to say it unequivocally: We are winning in Iraq," Lowry wrote in April 2005, chastising those who disagreed. This month, he published an editorial that concluded that "success in Iraq seems more out of reach than it has at any time since the initial invasion three years ago" and assailed "the administration's on-again-off-again approach to Iraq."

"It is time for the Bush administration to acknowledge that its approach of assuring people that progress is being made and operating on that optimistic basis in Iraq isn't working," the editorial said. Lowry followed up days later in his own column, suggesting that the United States is "losing, or at least not obviously winning, a major war" and asking whether Iraq is "Bush's Vietnam."

Quin Hillyer, executive editor of the American Spectator, cited Lowry's column in his own last week, writing that many are upset "because we seem not to be winning" and urging the White House to take on militia leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr. Until it does, he said, "there will be no way for the administration to credibly claim that victory in Iraq is achievable, much less imminent."

Bush aides were bothered by a George F. Will column last week mocking neoconservative desires to transform the Middle East: "Foreign policy 'realists' considered Middle East stability the goal. The realists' critics, who regard realism as reprehensibly unambitious, considered stability the problem. That problem has been solved."

The White House responded with a 2,432-word rebuttal -- three times as long as the column -- e-mailed to supporters and journalists. "Mr. Will's kind of 'stability' and 'realism' -- a kind of world-weary belief that nothing can be done and so nothing should be tried -- would eventually lead to death and destruction on a scale that is almost unimaginable," wrote White House strategic initiatives director Peter H. Wehner.

Bush advisers said that they never counted Will or some others now voicing criticism as strong supporters but that the president's political weakness has encouraged soft supporters and quiet skeptics to speak out.

William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the National Review and an icon of the Ronald Reagan-era conservative movement, caused a stir earlier this year when he wrote that "our mission has failed" in Iraq -- just a few months after Bush hosted a White House tribute to Buckley's 80th birthday and the magazine's 50th anniversary.

Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist who is not a conservative but has strongly backed the Iraq war, reversed course this month, writing that " 'staying the course' is pointless, and it's time to start thinking about Plan B -- how we might disengage with the least damage possible."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the second-guessing was predictable, given the difficulties in Iraq. "It's hardly unusual in times of war that people get anxious, and that would include people who have supported the president," he said. "The president understands that and is not fazed by it."

Snow said much of the frustration articulated by conservatives stems from a desire to accomplish Bush's ambitions. "The good thing is they all have the same goal: They all want to win the war on terror," he said. "You don't have people quibbling over the goals; they're quibbling over the means -- or 'quibbling' is the wrong word. 'Debating.' "

Snow, who hosted a Fox radio talk show before joining the White House this spring, has made an effort to reach out to conservative audiences by appearing on his former competitors' programs, including shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. "We're certainly more engaged on that front," he said.

And some of the president's neoconservative supporters have fired back on his behalf. Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary magazine, wrote an 11,525-word essay this month rebutting not only Will, Buckley and other traditional conservatives but also fellow neoconservatives who "have now taken to composing obituary notices of their own." He noted that he had been a tough critic of Reagan for betraying conservative values, only to later conclude that Reagan's approach served "an overall strategy that in the end succeeded in attaining its great objective."

Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a reliable Bush supporter, said the disillusionment is not surprising. "People get weary, especially when they expected a war to be over very quickly," he said in an interview. "Supporters fall off over time. I've been disappointed by some of the people who have fallen off, like George Will, but that's what happens."

Few have struck a nerve more than Scarborough, who questioned the president's intelligence on his show, "Scarborough Country." He showed a montage of clips of Bush's famously inarticulate verbal miscues and then explored with guests John Fund and Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. whether Bush is smart enough to be president.

While the country does not want a leader wallowing in the weeds, Scarborough concluded on the segment, "we do need a president who, I think, is intellectually curious."

"And that is a big question," Scarborough said, "whether George W. Bush has the intellectual curiousness -- if that's a word -- to continue leading this country over the next couple of years."

In a later telephone interview, Scarborough said he aired the segment because he kept hearing even fellow Republicans questioning Bush's capacity and leadership, particularly in Iraq. Like others, he said, he supported the war but now thinks it is time to find a way to get out. "A lot of conservatives are saying, 'Enough's enough,' " he said. Asked about the reaction to his program, he said, "The White House is not happy about it."

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