Suddenly, Mr. Centrist

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

George W. Bush took to the airwaves Monday night to occupy terrain he had previously shunned: the center.

The president claimed what he termed "a rational middle ground" between two supercharged social movements, between the nativist and business wings of his own party, between House Republicans from safe right-wing districts and Senate Republicans understandably nervous about the growing number of Latino voters in their states. The result, rhetorically, was a speech in which assertion was followed by counter-assertion, or at least by a counter-perspective. "Illegal immigration," Bush began, "strains state and local budgets and brings crime to our communities . . . .yet we must remember that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard . . . and lead responsible lives.

"We're a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws," he said. "We're also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition."

I was reminded of the New Yorker editor who told one writer that he'd crafted a sentence so exquisitely balanced that if touched ever so lightly, it would "rock back and forth forever."

Bush's speech was not like any other major address of his presidency. By his own admission, the president doesn't "do nuance." When Bush has come before the nation, it has usually been to announce a policy on the fringes of mainstream thinking (going to war in Iraq, privatizing Social Security), using a rhetoric of fear and various misstatements of fact to disparage moderation and move the country toward his own extreme conclusions.

On Monday night, however, a whole other Bush popped out of the box, cautioning his fellow Americans against those who are "inciting people to anger or playing on anyone's fears" -- as if Bush and the Republican right hadn't come to and clung to power by invoking the specter of gay marriage, the illusory links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. As if Republicans weren't planning even now to focus on gay marriage and flag-burning in the weeks before Congress's summer break.

And, to be sure, Bush stayed true to form by offering, as red meat to the right, to put National Guard soldiers on the border. He said nothing about changing the "free market" (that is, pro-U.S.-agribusiness) trade policies that have sped the demise of Mexican farming and sent millions of desperate Mexicans pouring over our border. (A supply-side approach to reducing the flood of immigrants would begin by rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement so that Mexican workers had enforceable labor rights; it's probably too late to save any small farmers.) But give credit where credit is due: For once the president unveiled a policy that wasn't crafted solely by and for right-wing ideologues and buttressed entirely by appeals to our phobias. I can't foresee any other major issues on which Bush might chart so relatively centrist a course, but even if the speech was the exception that proved the rule, it was a welcome change. Think of it as the manifesto of the Bush presidency that wasn't.

As for the Republican Congress that is, it may be that not enough of its members will be appeased by Bush's vow to police the border with high-tech immigrant-detectors and a symbolic deployment of troops. The same media machinery that helped bring those lawmakers to power is likely to keep riling their constituents against any "amnesty" proposal that provides the kind of path to legalization that Bush laid out for some of the immigrants here illegally. But even if the demagogues fell silent, millions of Americans of varying political stripes would still feel uneasy about immigration -- about its effect on our national identity, which is more polyglot than many native-born Americans acknowledge; and about its effect on our national economy, which is more problematic than many in our governing elites acknowledge.

To opponents of the bipartisan immigration fix that Bush now largely supports, our failure to control our borders symbolizes a loss of control over our destiny that, put in a broader context, haunts even their adversaries in this fight. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich, reporting on new polling he undertook on globalization, writes that "an impressive 87 percent of respondents expressed some degree of concern about outsourcing, [and] 52 percent say they 'worry a lot' about it." (For many unskilled American workers, immigration amounts to imported outsourcing.) Eighty-seven percent? On what other question do 87 percent of Americans agree -- short of, say, "Do you find the notion of death troubling?"

Bush and the Democrats may have arrived at a half-solution, better than none, for immigration. As for the larger conundrum of the global economy, and the loss of control that is the way actual Americans experience that economy, neither party really has a clue.

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