President Bush may be celebrating victory today, but he owes it to a group he never acknowledged during the campaign.

I’m talking about the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.

They are responsible for keeping Bush in the White House – or, more precisely, keeping John Kerry from snatching it from him.

There is not a doubt in my mind this was the difference in the race. The vets did Bush’s dirty work. They took Kerry on and told the American people the truth about this fraud, this liar, this deceiver. Just enough Americans got the message to preserve a win for Bush.

In fact, Bush and Karl Rove seemed to do their utmost to lose the election, despite the best efforts of the vets.

Bush seemed to be gaining momentum prior to the first debate with Kerry, but the president stumbled badly, apparently tired and ill-prepared by his political “genius” handlers. The vets were forced to run more ads to keep Kerry from overcoming the deficit.

It is impossible to overstate just how significant the impact of “Unfit for Command,” the best-selling book by John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi, was in this campaign. It kick-started the independent effort of the Swiftboat vets, gave their TV ads more publicity and helped make Kerry the issue.

The Bush campaign should have no illusions that yesterday’s victory was their own doing.

It was not.

I’m greatly relieved that Bush eked out a victory. But he hurt his own chances every step of the way.

Clinging to ridiculously unpopular and disastrous policies like amnesty for illegal aliens – whatever euphemism he gives it – probably robbed Bush of 2-3 percentage points in his race. His domestic spending binge in the last four years, plus his even bigger proposals for the next four years dampened enthusiasm for the president, who was re-elected on the basis of his handling of the war on terror.

If I don’t sound happy today, it’s only because I fear Bush and his handlers will learn all the wrong lessons from victory. There will be a temptation to congratulate themselves for a job well done, a campaign in which they pushed all the right buttons.

The truth is that Kerry was an incredibly weak candidate – one who should have been trounced by an incumbent, wartime president the way Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern, the way Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale.

Kerry was a bigger embarrassment than both those losers. He was, after all, a traitor – a certifiable seditionist unworthy of tying the shoes of most of America’s presidents, unworthy of sitting in the U.S. Senate, unworthy of running for president on a major party ticket.

Nevertheless, he won many key states. He won most of the states carried by Al Gore in 2000. He did not embarrass himself or his party. And that’s a shame.

So, my advice to the president and his staff today is to keep the celebrating to a minimum and to learn the real lessons of this campaign.

You blew it.

You squandered your mandate.

The American people are behind you on the war on terror. We didn’t want to change horses in midstream. But it’s time, Mr. President, to read our lips.

We want to rein in the unconstitutional spending sprees. We want to seal our borders. We want to enforce our immigration laws. We want to limit federal authority over our lives. We want to win this war and win it decisively. We want to preserve the institution of marriage and not water it down with “civil unions.” We want Supreme Court justices who don’t see themselves as high priests in black robes who rule over us.

Please listen to the people, Mr. President. You have one more chance to get it right.

And, by the way, how about a nice tribute to the Vietnam heroes who gave you your victory?

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