Conservative doves and trouble for the president

Congress may have Democrats more conservative than Marion Berry of Arkansas, who, after all, gets after the drug companies vigorously and was a leading ally of Ted Kennedy and John Edwards in fighting for a patients bill of rights.

But it can't have many, either in number or by extent of conservatism.

Berry is 100 percent pro-life. He voted to repeal the estate tax. He represents a culturally conservative district in which most of the money comes from farming, and he routinely wins re-election overwhelmingly.

He's a deficit hawk who loves farm subsidies, both as a congressman and a farmer.

Home last week for the Easter break, he was having breakfast in the Holiday Inn restaurant in the largest town in his district, a community of a little more than 50,000 people. He was telling me he'd heard "nary a peep," which is Arkansas-speak for having heard no one at all criticize his support for the resolution tying the next installment of Iraq war funding to a timetable for withdrawal.

Berry pointed to the corner table, where the ball-capped contingent of good ol' boys was having coffee over bad jokes and flirtations with the waitress. Berry said he hadn't heard anything from any of them, "and they're a pretty tough group."

This was the morning after President Bush had tried to call out his Democratic critics, saying their timetable for withdrawal threatened the troops and national security.

If this congressman in this district can openly oppose the war and endorse a timetable for withdrawal and encounter no political fallout, then this president and this war are in a world of even greater political hurt than we thought.

We appear to have reached a tipping point at which calls for patriotic support of war have been trumped by the only card capable of such a trump. That's common sense.

When America begins to coalesce around logic, political repercussions are profound.

Berry's reasoning was simple: Whatever you thought of the war in the first place, or think of it even now in terms of nobility of purpose, the fact is that it has become a failing proposition without prospect of a good ending. America's only logical alternative, he said, is to begin to withdraw and thereby increase the pressure on Iraqis to tend to their own problems.

He stressed that troops will continue to be funded. He said Democrats were only acting, on a much sounder basis, in much the way Republicans opposed Bill Clinton's deployment of troops in Bosnia.

If we leave and horrific events require us to go back, then, Berry said, America must return as part of a cooperative international effort. That was one reason, he said, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was at that moment in the Middle East, even to drop in on Syria.

An American official with credibility and authority must begin to repair our relationships in the world, he said.

This conservative southern Democrat, a longtime acquaintance of the Clintons and White House agriculture aide in the Clinton administration, told me he once had thought that Hillary Clinton was the smartest political strategist he knew. Now he thinks she's second to Pelosi. I asked him if he meant among women. He said he meant period.

Later that same day, the Public Agenda and Foreign Affairs released a poll showing 70 percent of respondents support a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 12 months.

This American tragedy in Iraq may be just about over except for the shouting -- a lone president's shouting.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@