State of (Political) Emergency

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 16, 2006 1:03 PM

The urgency that led President Bush to make a rare prime-time Oval Office address last night on the subject of immigration had absolutely nothing to do with the state of the nation's borders, which are objectively no more porous today than, say, a year ago.

But politically, Bush suddenly finds himself facing an immigration emergency.

And he also finds himself in the unusual -- and awkward -- position of trying to create a middle ground. For all his talk of being a uniter rather than a divider, Bush has historically taken intensely partisan positions on most issues.

Constructing a stable middle ground requires more skill and more political capital than a pure partisan play. But it's not clear how much of either the Bush White House can muster at this point.

Here is the text of Bush's speech.

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said last night that he will dispatch 6,000 National Guard troops starting next month to help secure the porous U.S.-Mexican border, calling on a divided Congress and country to find 'a rational middle ground' on immigration that includes providing millions of illegal workers a new route to citizenship. . . .

"In conversations with lawmakers earlier in the day, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove made it clear that Bush supports, in principle, a Senate-backed plan that would provide immigrants who have lived here for five or more years a clear path to citizenship if they pay a penalty, according to participants. . . .

"But the Republican-controlled House so far has been hostile to the emerging Bush plan. Conservatives in that chamber are pushing for legislation that would tighten the borders but would not allow any route to citizenship that does not require first leaving the country."

The Analyses

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush last night stood in an unfamiliar place -- the political center -- and tried to persuade people of firm, unyielding principles on both sides to embrace his multi-faceted approach to handling illegal immigration. . . .

"Both the rhetoric of persuasion and the complicated program, seeking a middle ground between opposing interests, seemed out of character for Bush, who has prided himself on being a 'decider' who stakes out a position and gives little ground to opponents."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In recent months, President Bush seems to have been steadily losing the public on one of the sturdy pillars of his presidency: the benefit of the doubt.

"On Monday, he asked for it again on the most contentious domestic issue: immigration."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush once saw the immigration issue as an opportunity to expand the Republican Party by attracting more Hispanic voters with a message of tolerance and inclusion. His nationally televised speech last night was an admission that the issue has now become a problem that, if not managed carefully, could quickly become a historic liability for his party."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush stepped to the right and left at the same time on immigration: courting conservatives with tough talk of sending the National Guard to the border and seeking to reassure moderates that a guest-worker program will be part of the mix.

" 'These are not contradictory goals,' he declared in a prime-time address to the nation. Neither side seemed reassured."

John Roberts told Larry King on CNN: "I think that the president's trying to walk a really fine line here unlike Solomon who divided the baby. The president is trying to stick the baby back together again."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "What was remarkable to people who knew Mr. Bush in Texas was how much he still believes in the power of immigration to invigorate the nation."

Fact Check

Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press was a lonely voice fact-checking the president: "President Bush took credit for a boost in border security that was largely the work of Congress, and boasted about illegal aliens caught on his watch even though those numbers have fallen for much of his presidency. . . .

"Bush's rationale for sending the guard is that the U.S. is not fully in control of its borders, a point no one seriously disputes. In stating that challenge and asking for more money to deal with it, however, he did not acknowledge any lapses on his part. . . .

"Last year, for example, Bush's budget proposal to Congress would have provided enough money only to pay for about 200 new border agents. This despite a 2004 law that required the addition of 2,000 agents a year."


Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Some of the border state governors, Democrats in Congress, and others immediately raised questions about the practicality of the plan. Mr. Bush's broad approach also drew tepid reviews from some House Republicans and conservatives, whose support he will need as he grapples with a problem that has defied decades of proposed solutions: the continued economic imbalances between the United States and its trading partners to the south."

Monica Davey and Ralph Blumenthal write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush managed to disappoint people on both sides of the immigration debate on Monday night. Each side said it had hoped to hear more encouraging words over an issue that has become a showdown in Congress and on the streets of cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Each side saw hints of an extended fight ahead."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "the Republican president's calls for tougher border enforcement were all but dismissed by members of the conservative wing of his party, who criticized Bush for supporting what they call amnesty for illegal immigrants."

Frank James writes in the Chicago Tribune blog, quoting Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.): "This cannot turn into another long-term military deployment with no clear plan."

The Role of the Guard

John Koopman writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "A proposal by President Bush to send several thousand National Guard troops to help the Border Patrol is raising questions about whether it would affect the Guard's missions at home and abroad -- and whether it's even an appropriate use of the troops."

One of the most glaring problems with the plan, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, burst out into the open at the briefing held yesterday afternoon at the White House with counselor Dan Bartlett, homeland security adviser Fran Townsend and others.

"MS. TOWNSEND: The hope is that you can do, by and large, it with the training stints, the annual training obligation of National Guardsmen. Obviously, depending on what expertise is required, it may not be able to do the whole thing that way, but that is the planning assumption going in, is to be able to do most of it that way.

"Q But that means you've got people rotating in and out every three weeks.

"MR. BARTLETT: Which is something that the Guard does routinely. There's guys who rotate in and out of doing work in the war on terror overseas for three weeks. This is a highly-coordinated, synchronized system. That's one role that the National Guard at the bureau level can help coordinate and play, to rotate people in and out based on need and based on capability. . . .

"Q You're making the argument that you've got 6,000 people rotating every two or three weeks, trying to accomplish jobs to assist the Border Patrol? Hello? I mean, can this really work?

"MR. BARTLETT: Hello? Yes. (Laughter.) Bill, this is a highly-sophisticated enterprise, but that's what they deploy themselves to do. I mean, we do bombing rotations from Missouri all the way to the Middle East and back."

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "The two-week deployments for each Guard unit will take the place of the units' normal two-week summer training periods. The arrangement should alleviate stress on Guard soldiers who already have done yearlong tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo. But by giving up the units' only block of sustained training time, it will complicate the task of preparing Guard troops for their primary roles -- responding to natural and other disasters and conducting combat and peacekeeping missions overseas."

Barnes and Spiegel also write that "the military and civilian officials who will carry out the plan have deep misgivings about a real show of military force on the border.

"As a result, the president's big initiative is heavy on symbolism but will be small in scale -- and largely invisible on the ground."

Opinion Watch

New York Times editorial: "President Bush's speech from the Oval Office last night was not a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. It was a victory for the fear-stricken fringe of the debate."

Washington Post editorial: "[L]ast night was a good start. 'Our new immigrants are just what they've always been: people willing to risk everything for the dream of freedom,' the president said. 'We honor the heritage of all who come here, no matter where they come from, because we trust in our country's genius for making us all Americans, one nation under God.' Well said; now the president will have to persuade his party to share in that trust."

Los Angeles Times editorial: "Six years have taught us that the president employs talented speechwriters. The doubts are more about the gap between his rhetoric and action."

USA Today editorial: "As is Bush's habit, he offered no plan to pay for his ambitions, nor any estimate of the cost, which would be substantial."

Chicago Tribune editorial: "Bush's plan is a good one, practically and politically."

New York Post editorial: "Bush's speech raises the hope that America finally may be waking up to its border problem. But if the nation is to get this issue under control once and for all, it'll need more resolve than Bush demonstrated last night."

Marc Cooper in the Nation: "The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the President's right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base."

Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe: "Bush is sending the Iraq-weary Guard to the border to mollify hardline conservatives who are building their careers around -- whether they say this explicitly or not -- a brown invasion from the south."

Debra J. Saunders in the San Francisco Chronicle: "What a shoddy way to say thank you to troops who have seen plenty of action in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina. It is also an insult to conservative and moderate voters, whom he apparently thinks this feckless gesture will appease."

Cartoon Watch

Dan Wasserman , Mike Luckovich and Ben Sargent weigh in on Bush's immigration plan.

False Start

Kasie Hunts writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush was briefly caught in the floodlights Monday night when NBC News, which was operating the television camera in the Oval Office, gave him the cue to begin his speech too early."

You Tube has the video, which shows Bush's eyes looking very confused.

Changing the Subject

Leave it to Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales to write about the elephant in the room.

"Neither the president, in his customary pale blue tie, nor the network commentators, for the most part, answered other questions that hung in the air if not on the airwaves: Was the speech really prompted by the urgency of the immigration issue, or by the severity of Bush's low ratings in popularity polls? Was the real purpose to spur debate on immigration, or to push Iraq out of the spotlight for the next few days, while pundits ponder immigration on op-ed pages and cable news networks? . . .

"Anchors and commentators tended to play along, concentrating on the issue with their usual grim faces and behaving as if there were no other news in the world."

Snow's First Briefing

Tony Snow gives his first on-camera briefing today at 12:30. Hopefully, some White House correspondents will use some of your wonderful questions for him.

Rove Talks

Here's video of Karl Rove's "major policy address" at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Presidential adviser Karl Rove blamed the war in Iraq on Monday for dragging down President Bush's job approval ratings in public opinion polls. 'People like this president,' Rove said. 'They're just sour right now on the war.'

" 'We're in a sour time. I readily admit it,' Rove, who rarely makes public appearances, said at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. 'Being in the middle of a war where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat.' "

Rove said the polls he believes are those conducted by the Republican National Committee. "And I look at those polls all the time," he said. "The American people like this president. His personal approval ratings are in the 60s. Job approval is lower. And what that says to me is that people like him, they respect him, he's somebody they feel a connection with, but they're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be."

If true, that would put the RNC polls in direct conflict with everything I've seen. Pollingreport.com aggregates such numbers, and reports that Bush recently got a 29 percent favorable rating in the CBS News/New York Times Poll; a 39 percent favorable rating in the USA Today/Gallup Poll; etc.

Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush's political wizard Karl Rove must be smoking a peace pipe if he really thinks his boss' only problem with the public is the war in Iraq, many political observers said yesterday."

ThinkProgress.org has a video clip of Rove failing to respond to a question about the CIA leak investigation from David Corn of the Nation.

Corn: "Scott McClellan told the White House press corps, many are here today, that he had spoken to you and that you were not involved in the CIA leak. Can you explain why the American public, almost two and a half years later, hasn't been given an explanation and don't you think it deserves one, for that misinformation, because it does seem that you were, to some degree, though maybe disputed, involved in that leak."

Rove: "My attorney, Mr. Luskin, made a statement on April 26th, I refer you to that statement. I have nothing more to add to it. Nice try, though." (See my April 27 column for Luskin's statement.)

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column: "Presidential adviser Karl Rove had almost finished his appearance yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute when it happened. Discussing the Bush administration's record on illegal immigration, he blurted out, 'We're doing a heck of a job.'


Roving Rumor

Anne Marie Squeo writes in the Wall Street Journal about the furor set off by stories posted on a Web site called Truthout.org that claimed that Rove had been indicted.

" 'The system for keeping unverifiable reports out of the news is totally broken down when you look at the online world,' says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and a blogger himself at www.pressthink.org ."

The author of the Truthout.org was Jason Leopold. Howard Kurtz wrote about Leopold's earlier journalistic black eyes in The Washington Post last March.

Rove Attitude Watch

So how is Rove holding up under all this pressure? Depends on who you ask.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, arrives at the White House every day wearing a jovial smile that masks his boss' political troubles and his own legal woes. . . .

"His friends and colleagues say he's not fazed by his precarious situation.

" 'Karl's focus is sharper than ever and his spirit is high,' said Dan Bartlett, White House counselor, downplaying any claims that Rove is distracted. 'He packs more work into one day than most of us get done in a week.' . . .

"Photo after photo of Rove, who is often seen walking behind Bush on the South Lawn or sitting behind him at meetings, depicts the moonfaced adviser wearing the same smile, one that suggests little about what he might be thinking or feeling."

But Holly Bailey writes for Newsweek: "Behind the scenes, White House aides -- as well as other prominent Republicans in Washington -- are nervous that their most valuable political player could be taken out of the game on the eve of a crucial midterm election this fall. 'To see him back before that grand jury has people very worried,' said a House GOP lawmaker and close ally of the White House, who declined to be named talking about the case. . . .

"Privately, Rove's friends and colleagues tell Newsweek that the senior Bush aide has struggled to maintain an upbeat front about his legal status in recent weeks and that he has appeared distracted."

Financial Disclosure

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday released the financial disclosure forms they are required by law to file every year. They offer a broad portrait of both men's not-insignificant wealth, showing Bush to possess a relatively safe portfolio, with much of his money locked up in real estate and rock-solid investments in government Treasury notes, while Cheney has a more diverse spread of assets. . . .

"Among the awkward vagaries of being in high public office is that the forms reveal how much each spent on the other for Christmas. Last year, for instance, Cheney presented Bush with a $400 pair of binoculars, while the president bought his second-in-command a $338 hammock on a steel frame."

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