Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The downside of having convictions

In today's Inquirer, I assessed the political side of President Bush's prime-time immigration speech, but there is more that needs to be said. In a sense, consider these supplemental remarks to be a tribute to Bush's stubborn convictions.

Yes, he felt compelled to lean rightward on border enforcement (at least symbolically) because the anti-immigrant right-wingers have been putting the squeeze on him. But he didn't go belly up and pander, either. He still managed to slap them around pretty well, with this passage:

"We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone's fears, or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain. We must always remember that real lives will be affected by our debates and decisions, and that every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say."

That's presidential politesse, of course, but what it means in plain English is this: "People in my own base are acting like racists and demagogues, and they oughta knock it off."

Also, I don't sense that Bush favors a slow-assimilation guest-worker program just because he thinks it would be politically advantageous to bring Hispanic voters into the GOP. That's only one factor. Conservative thinker James Pinkerton, who worked in the senior George Bush's White House, provided useful context in his own column this morning:

"...Bush has held a pro-immigration opinion for a long time. His business background convinced him that low-wage immigration was good for the economy, Karl Rove convinced him that Hispanic immigrants could become future Republicans, and his father -- who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement back in 1992 -- convinced him that the Bush destiny was to preside over improved U.S.-Mexico relations. As governor of Texas, he was proud to show off his Spanish; as president, he has been no foe of bilingualism."

So I sensed last night that Bush was truly sincere when said this: "We must honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one Nation out of many peoples. The success of our country depends upon helping newcomers assimilate into our society, and embrace our common identity as Americans...from cleaning offices to running offices ... from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own. When immigrants assimilate and advance in our society, they realize their dreams...they renew our spirit...and they add to the unity of America."

Passages like that won't help him heal the growing breach with many on the right -- particularly those House Republicans who have already passed a bill to build a border fence and send the illegals back home. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who sides with the enforcement-only faction, framed the political stakes this morning on his blog:

"With last night's speech, President Bush severely worsened the schism in the party over immigration. The people he has put in gravest danger are those who most strenuously disagree with him: the House Republicans. Depressed turnout among Republican core voters threatens House members most - with one ironic possible result being an even more liberal immigration bill next year that will gain support from the president, Senate Republicans and a new Democratic House majority."

It's ironic that Bush, the reputed conservative, is suffering some of his worst damage on an issue on which he is actually a genuine moderate. That's politics for ya.


Speaking of the prospects for sluggish Republican turnout, I wrote a weekend newspaper column about the GOP's counter-strategy: to invoke the specter of "House Speaker Pelosi" as well as other purportedly scary Democrats, as a turnout motivation tool. Anybody still interested in this topic can find a new report, here.