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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Losing His Cake and Going Hungry

From a substantive point of view, Bush’s big nationally televised immigration speech last night wasn’t bad. Sure, he over-hyped the small and overdue step of authorizing governors to use Guard units for border control support, trying to make it sound like he was personally sending in the cavalry. And yeah, his emphasis on making illegal immigrants “guest workers” rather than potential citizens was questionable, implying that his goal is to get most illegals to sign up for guest-worker status so they can be sent home when they’ve finished their service to the U.S. economy. But his definition of “comprehensive immigration reform” was basically sound, and pretty much where the U.S. Senate seems headed this week.Politically, though, Bush’s speech is beginning to look like a real king-hell disaster. If he thought the xenophobes in his party would be pleased with his Guard-deployment gambit, he was dead wrong: the wingers are really going medieval on him today. Check out this assessement from the normally mild-mannered Rich Lowry of National Review:

President Bush has a bold new approach to immigration enforcement: He wants to police the Mexican border with symbolism.That’s the point of his proposal to send the National Guard to our border with Mexico. This represents Bush’s final, desperate descent into Clintonian sleight of hand. He wants to distract enough of his supporters with the razzle-dazzle of “National Guard to the Border!” headlines that they won’t notice he is pushing through Congress a proposal that essentially legalizes all the population influx from Latin America that has occurred in the past 10 years and any that might occur in the future.Like President Clinton’s gesture of sending more U.S. troops to Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, when everyone knew we were really on our way out, Bush’s Guard deployment is a prelude to surrender. The immigrants who have come here in defiance of our laws will get to stay, bring their families and be joined by just as many immigrants in the future—at least if Bush gets his way.It is with this position that Bush has wrecked his political standing, kicking out from under himself the support of his conservative base. Bush’s National Guard feint is a sign that the White House thinks conservatives are not just disaffected, but credulous

When conservatives start comparing W. to Bill Clinton, you know the bottom has fallen out. But even before the speech, there was another sign of big-time conservative disaffection over immigration. Over at that Conservative Establishment Bohemoth, the Heritage Foundation, the web site features an “analysis” by Robert Rector suggesting that the pending Senate immigration bill, which Bush has basically endorsed, would attract 103 million new illegal immigrants over the next 20 years, and cost taxpayers a minimum of $46 billion a year in transfer payments (in a rich irony, the transfer payment estimate is based on the same voodoo econometric model that Heritage has long used to prop up administration claims that tax cuts pay for themselves).Now many of you probably have never heard of Robert Rector, but he’s basically a human rottweiler that Heritage unleashes now and then to bare his teeth and growl at any Republican daring to betray Conservative Orthodoxy. He made his bones back during the welfare reform debate of the mid-1990s, in which he manned the Far-Right pole of opinion, demanding a categorical denial of federal assistance to non-citizens and to unwed mothers.The fact that Heritage is hyping Rector’s Brown Peril “study” on immigration right now goes beyond its exceptional usefulness to all those right-wing talk show hosts who are using it to lend a patina of respectability to their fulminations on the subject. The House That Coors Built seems to have fully joined the conservative revolt against W, reinforcing the implicit conservative threat to take a dive in November if the Bushies don’t straighten up and Fly Right.Even as Bush honked off conservatives last night, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to get beyond mealy-mouthed generalizations about the legislation actually before Congress right now. Sure, he offered a veiled endorsement of the Senate compromise, and implicitly repudiated the House’s build-a-wall-and-ship-’em-all-home approach. But when it comes to the House GOP, which is getting even more revved up in its nativism, his “come let us reason together” rhetoric last night was the functional equivalent of offering an olive branch to a wood chipper. He’s falling between two stools, heavily.Employing another metaphor, a colleague of mine yesterday suggested that Bush’s speech represented an effort to “have his cake and eat it, too.” If so, it looks like he’s managing to lose his cake and go hungry.

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