WHY have President Bush's poll ratings improved lately? Some say it is because he became more visible and vocal in defense of his policies. But I believe the Democrats drove voters back to his camp with their attacks on the Patriot Act and the administration's wiretapping policies.
Bush's Democratic and liberal critics tend to see opposition to the war in Iraq and complaints about domestic spying as two sides of the same coin both positions that defend what they see as our values in the face of government recklessness.
But while the critics have a plurality on the question of whether the war in Iraq was a mistake, they're in the minority in complaining about the Bush anti-terror policies at home.
Why do majorities support the Patriot Act and NSA wiretapping but oppose the war in Iraq? Because the true swing voters in politics today are isolationists, who vote with the left on Iraq and with the right on homeland security.
It is impossible to understand politics today without grasping the essential power of isolationism in our political community. The voters who rate Bush's performance in Iraq negatively or who call for a pullout are not, in the main, dedicated liberals or even Democrats. Rather, they're marching to the beat of a drummer never stilled in our political music the desire for the rest of the world to go away.
The spokespeople for the Democratic Party and the anti-war movement may be liberals and even internationalists, but they represent a thin veneer atop a constituency that is far more isolationist than liberal in its perspective and orientation.
This coalition of liberals and isolationists brought down the Vietnam War and serves as the mainstay of the opposition to the current war in Iraq.
In 1996, I did a series of polls for President Bill Clinton to quantify the isolationist element in the American electorate. The surveys indicated that 15 percent of the voters were global in outlook while 35 percent were isolationist. (The balance 50 percent was either open to internationalism or closed to it based on the particulars of each situation.)
And the isolationist 35 percent divided evenly among the political parties, constituting a third of each party's base voters.
On the left, they tended to say that we needed to pay attention to America's poor and our own problems rather than squander our resources abroad. On the right, they complained that the rest of the world was at least ungrateful and perhaps unworthy of our attention and money. But left or right, it was an undiluted block of opposition to any foreign involvement.
I doubt that the numbers have changed much since then. Indeed, Iraq may have expanded the ranks of the isolationists.
Never defeated at the polls, isolationism became the politically incorrect view in American politics as a result of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the anti-communist crusades that began in the mid 1940s. The closest isolationists ever came to national success was Ohio Sen. Bob Taft's bid for the 1952 Republican nomination which Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won at the convention with a delegate count of 599 to 500.
Isolationism lost its power in the '50s and '60s as the white Catholic voters who were prominent in its ranks defected, rallying behind the Vatican in opposing atheistic communism. In the Vietnam era, it resurfaced and linked with the left in undoing three decades of interventionist consensus in our foreign policy.
Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush I and Bill Clinton avoided offending the isolationists by adopting foreign policies that limited overseas military intervention and limited casualties even more. But President George W. Bush has aroused the isolationist left and right by his determination in Iraq.
Yet the irony is that the very same voters the Democrats attract by attacking the war they lose by condemning domestic wiretaps and the Patriot Act policies that isolationism argues for.
By figuring that all antiwar sentiment is liberal, Democrats misread the public about the isolationists, whom the Democrats will keep in their corner when the argument is 4,000 miles away but will lose when it is right at home.