(CNSNews.com) - An unpopular president and an unpopular war are among the factors behind the "crisis" gripping the conservative movement, but they do not fully account for recent political setbacks, Robert Novak, a veteran Washington, D.C., journalist and long-time conservative commentator, told conservative students Tuesday.
The doctrine of "preventive war" and the "nation-building" agenda now attached to the Iraq war "should not be on the conservative agenda," Novak said while addressing the Young America's Foundation's 29th Annual National Student Conference at George Washington University.
"We are going to leave Iraq starting next year," he said. "But it won't be done precipitously, and it must be done in an orderly fashion."
Novak anticipates some level of American troops remaining in Iraq for a time to help stabilize the country and protect the U.S. embassy. A federalist form of government that divides power among Sunni, Shia and Kurdish elements is one possible arrangement that might prove workable, he said.
The Bush administration decision to invade Iraq was flawed from the outset, Novak argued, because there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, Novak said he never saw any strong evidence that the Iraqi government had command of and access to weapons of mass destruction.
'Feeling of betrayal'
But the challenges to the conservative movement extend beyond foreign policy consternation. There is a "feeling of betrayal among the Republican Party base" that can be traced to the "spending splurge" on Capitol Hill over the last several years, Novak said.
Despite having a "rare opportunity" to control both the White House and Congress, the GOP acquiesced to big government initiatives that cut against the grain of its mandate from conservative voters, Novak told the audience.
The "federalization of education" and a massive prescription drug entitlement were among the spending initiatives he singled out for criticism.
Looking to the 2008 presidential race, Novak sees a daunting political environment for Republicans. Although New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for Democratic nomination, lacks "likeability," the Republican candidate will need to offer a "compelling conservative message" to "avoid a catastrophe in the election," he said.
Although not officially in the race yet, early polls show former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) could potentially re-energize conservatives, Novak observed. He suggested that Thompson build his campaign around an audacious reform agenda that includes transformation of the tax code and Social Security.
Meanwhile, the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) - once viewed as a potential frontrunner for his party's nomination - is imploding, Novak said, because "he bit the elephant too much."
McCain went against the grain of Republicans on key questions such as campaign finance reform, global warming and embryonic stem cell research, Novak said. But it was the Arizona Republican's identity with the failed immigration bill that appears to have doomed his campaign, Novak surmised.
Moreover, "non-Republicans" who once gravitated toward McCain are now alienated by his strong support for the war in Iraq, Novak added.
Reagan: 'most successful' president
Novak also discussed his recently completed memoirs, "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington D.C."
He encouraged young conservatives to enter the journalism profession but also cautioned against revealing their convictions while in the early stages of their careers because of the liberal bias and political correctness in most of today's top newsrooms.
The conservative columnist has covered every president since Dwight Eisenhower. He said the one figure who stands out is Ronald Reagan, who is described in the book as a "great president" who revived the economy and led America to victory in the Cold War.
Instead of getting caught up in the minutia of Washington, D.C., politics, Reagan remained focused on larger matters, Novak explained. The former president put little stock in the criticisms of his administration appearing in the Evans and Novak column and elsewhere, he added.
"The Lilliputian maneuvers I dwelled on in the column did not bother him," Novak wrote in his new book. Reagan "knew better than his critics the power of rhetoric. On May 31, 1988, amidst the hand-wringing, Reagan went to the Soviet Union to deliver a speech at Moscow State University that seized the world's attention by extolling the 'power of economic freedom.'"
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