Has Bush Given Up on Immigration?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 22, 2007 1:20 PM

The much-anticipated immigration compromise cobbled together last week by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators isn't going anywhere without a lot of aggressive campaigning by the president.

But where is President Bush? Not exactly out on the hustings.

Where's the full-court press? Where's the barnstorming? Where are the famous White House theatrics?

There's something in the immigration compromise for everyone to hate -- and the haters are coming out in full force, dominating (thus far at least) the political discourse. Offsetting them would require Bush to seize his White House bullhorn and give it everything he's got.

Here's the problem, however: Bush's usual political style -- appealing to partisanship and stoking fear -- isn't going to work on this issue. This time, those are the tools of choice of his opponents. What Bush needs to do is appeal to people's reason and conscience -- and then back up his arguments with detailed and informed explanations of why the various tradeoffs reflected in the final agreement were necessary.

Bush often calls himself the educator-in-chief. But what he calls education has too often consisted of repeating simplistic sound bytes over and over. When he's faced with a tough question, he typically doesn't take it in, mull it, and explain his thinking -- he just goes into his mental database of previously-used talking points and picks one out, whether it's responsive or not.

But this bill needs an educator-in-chief. Or else it's dead on arrival.

After the compromise was announced, Bush showed up in front of the cameras for exactly two minutes on Friday afternoon. "I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can," he said. Then he recited a rote radio address for Saturday delivery.

Yesterday, Bush left the topic to spokesman Tony Fratto, who gamely insisted that immigration "is a very high priority for the president." But Fratto couldn't offer up any evidence to support the argument. Consider Bush's public schedule for the coming week:

He has no public events today. Tomorrow, Bush delivers the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy where, he told Reuters yesterday, he intends to make the momentous announcement that "al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq and is public enemy number one for America."

Thursday, Bush's only public event will find him at a photo opportunity related to trade exports. The only glimpse you'll see of him on Friday will be boarding Marine One for a flight to Camp David. And so on.

Has the president lost his enthusiasm for the issue? Is he just biding his time? Or does he realize he doesn't have what it takes to move the ball?

The Unraveling

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that "even proponents of the delicate compromise proposal conceded that the furor over the deal was surpassing their expectations and endangering the plan. . . .

"With dozens of amendments planned, traps being laid by opponents could upset the fragile coalition that drafted the measure. . . .

"Supporters had expected opposition from both ends of the political spectrum. But they conceded they were taken aback by the furious response over the weekend, especially from conservatives, who declared that the legislation is nothing short of amnesty for lawbreakers."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The powerful interest groups whose backing is critical to an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy are fracturing over the new bipartisan 'grand bargain' in the Senate, setting up a brawl over changes that could tear the fragile deal apart...

"Add to that the withering fire from conservatives, a tepid welcome from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's faint praise of the bill as a 'starting point,' and what has been billed as a 'grand bargain' on immigration appears to be unraveling before the debate even begins."

Robert Pear and Michael Luo write in the New York Times: "From the moment debate started, the crosscurrents buffeting the bill were evident. The intense lobbying since the bill emerged last week from three months of bipartisan negotiations is likely to be just a sample of what lawmakers will hear as they return home to their districts for the Memorial Day recess."

The Gore Critique

Of course, if you believe Al Gore, appealing to reason is not exactly Bush's strong point.

Michiko Kakutani writes in a New York Times review of Gore's new book: "In 'The Assault on Reason' Al Gore excoriates George W. Bush, asserting that the president is 'out of touch with reality,' that his administration is so incompetent that it 'can't manage its own way out of a horse show,' that it ignored 'clear warnings' about the terrorist threat before 9/11 and that it has made Americans less safe by 'stirring up a hornets' nest in Iraq,' while using 'the language and politics of fear' to try to 'drive the public agenda without regard to the evidence, the facts or the public interest.' . . .

"Mr. Gore's central argument is that 'reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions' and that the country's public discourse has become 'less focused and clear, less reasoned.' This 'assault on reason,' he suggests, is personified by the way the Bush White House operates. Echoing many reporters and former administration insiders, Mr. Gore says that the administration tends to ignore expert advice (be it on troop levels, global warming or the deficit), to circumvent the usual policy-making machinery of analysis and debate, and frequently to suppress or disdain the best evidence available on a given subject so it can promote predetermined, ideologically driven policies."

Joe Conason writes in a Los Angeles Times book review: "As [Gore] explains in his new book, the American political system has degenerated into a rigged game that suppresses honesty and rewards deception. . . .

"[A]lthough he clearly identifies other culprits, placing special emphasis on the baneful hypnotic power of television and the irresponsibility of the networks, he provides in this book one of the most comprehensive indictments of the Bush administration that has ever appeared in print. He goes so far as to hint that, in their abject service to power and their quest for dominance both at home and abroad, the president and his associates have imperiled their souls."

The Carter Critique

At his joint appearance with the head of NATO yesterday, Bush was asked about former President Jimmy Carter's critiques of his administration. (See yesterday's column.)

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that Bush "chose to turn the other cheek."

It's true Bush didn't respond with a personal attack -- but I wouldn't call it turning the cheek, either. The clear implication in Bush's long-winded and familiar-sounding non-response was that people who criticize him, such as Carter, are weak and hate freedom.

From the transcript:

"Q Mr. President, Jimmy Carter unleashed some fairly harsh criticism of you over the weekend. We're you surprised by this, and do you take much stock in what he said?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Steve, you know, I get criticized a lot from different quarters, and that's just part of what happens when you're President. And I will continue to make decisions that I think are necessary to protect the American people from harm. I will continue to make decisions based upon certain principles, one of which is my strong belief in the universality of freedom.

"We're at war with an enemy that is relentless and determined, and it's essential that the decisions I make protect the American people as best as we can. And it turns out my presidency is such that we talk about how -- with strong allies -- how to defend ourselves. I firmly believe that in order to protect America we must go on the offense against radicals, extremists, murderers in order to protect not only ourselves, but our allies.

"And I also realize that we're involved in an ideological struggle, that these murderers, these radicals, these extremists have got a point of view. If you want to find out what their point of view is about, look what happened in Afghanistan under the brutal relationship of the Taliban and al Qaeda. On the one hand, if you're a woman and spoke out, or a woman and tried to advance, you were suppressed, in brutal fashion sometimes. And in the meantime, an enemy that hates America, plotted and planned.

"And so, look, I understand some people are -- may not agree with the decisions I make. But what the American people need to know, I'm making them based upon what's best for this country."

And for the record, Mark Leibovich writes in the New York Times that "there have been several instances of 'when ex-presidents attack' over the years. As recently as a few months ago, former President Gerald R. Ford criticized Mr. Bush's Iraq policy, albeit from the grave. In an article in The Washington Post, Bob Woodward quoted from an interview he conducted with Mr. Ford with the understanding that he could only publish Mr. Ford's remarks after he died.

"Eisenhower was critical of John F. Kennedy's domestic policies, the first President Bush pounded on Bill Clinton, now his pal, for his Haiti policy, and Nixon chided the first President Bush (for comparing himself to Harry Truman in his 1992 re-election campaign)."

Reuters Interview

Bush sat down with Reuters White House correspondent Steve Holland for an interview on Air Force One yesterday, on the way back to Washington from Crawford. Here is the full transcript.

Bush didn't make much news related to Iraq. Holland writes: "President George W. Bush said on Monday he believes September will be an "important moment" to assess the extent of progress in Iraq under his much-criticized troop buildup plan."

But he did say some surprising things about Russia. In a separate story, Holland reports: "President George W. Bush said on Monday a lot of tensions exist between the West and Russia and voiced skepticism about Russia's path to democracy under President Vladimir Putin. . . .

"Bush said he still is close to Putin personally but said 'it's a very complex relationship' between the U.S. and Russian governments.

"'He thinks they've got a democracy emerging there in Russia. Obviously there's a lot of suspicion about that, and I look forward to continuing to talk to him as to why he thinks his country is on the path to democracy. It looks like at times it's not to me,' he said."

More from the interview transcript: "It looks like some of the decisions he has made aren't leading the country to democracy. He, on the other hand, says it's a special kind of democracy that we in the West don't understand, and therefore I'd be willing to listen more about why he thinks that what he's doing is democratic in nature. But, yes, it's -- there's some positives and some negatives. Some positives in Russia is there's a middle class beginning to develop that is gaining purchasing power, which will help their economy.

"Obviously, some of the negatives are the different changes of rule of law, the diminution of a free press; just some of the decisions he's made have sent mixed signals to the West and mixed signals to me."

Reuters also reports Bush "said on Monday that extremists trying to topple Lebanon's government 'need to be reined in.' . . .

"Bush, deeply distrustful of Syria's role in Lebanon, stopped short of accusing Damascus of being involved in the conflict. Syria has denied accusations that it had links to the Fatah al-Islam group battling the Lebanese army.

"'I don't know about this particular incident. I'll be guarded on making accusations until I get better information, but I will tell you there's no doubt that Syria was deeply involved in Lebanon. There's no question they're still involved in Lebanon,' he said."

And Reuters also reports Bush "said on Monday he wants an American to succeed Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank, playing down speculation he might turn to departing British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the job."

Bush's Legacy

Bush told Holland that "if you're doing big things, it takes a while for history to be able to fully analyze your presidency. There's no such thing as accurate short-term history of a President."

Yet that didn't stop him from offering thoughts of his own on his legacy: "I hope it is that George Bush fought the war, he laid out a strategy for America and her allies to ultimately defeat these ideologues; he recognized the nature of the enemy, he spoke clearly about the nature of the enemy; he went on the offense in order to protect his own country; he put in place a variety of measures to help deal with this threat, and he had great faith in the capacity of liberty to ultimately conquer this ideology."

Nonresponsive

It's exchanges like this that show how averse Bush is to actually engaging the arguments of his critics.

Holland asked Bush about a recent visit from a group of Republican lawmakers who bluntly warned him that his pursuit of the war in Iraq is risking the future of the Republican Party and that he cannot count on GOP support for many more months. (See my May 10 column.)

Bush's reply: "I'm not going to talk about what any specific member said. But it was a very good session because it was a very frank discussion about my views and the importance of the decision I made, as far as achieving success, and their views and their hopes that we can succeed. Very few people come to the White House and say, gosh, I hope we fail. Most people are saying, well, I hope this works, and I am concerned about the situation there."

The issue is not that anyone is hoping for failure. It's responding to those who are worried that we are failing.

The Missing '-ic'

From the transcript:

"Q: The Iraq funding bill seems to have been stymied a bit on Friday. What happens now?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, we just need to watch and see. There is a way forward, there's a compromise to be had. My hope is that the Democrat [sic] leader sees it. I don't support timetables, artificial timetables. But I do support benchmarks with consequences. And Josh is going to work very closely with the leadership to see if we can't reach an agreement."

Judiciary Committee Watch

Jeremy Jacobs writes in The Hill: "In a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding Monday, Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) expressed their 'extreme disappointment' in the White House's unwillingness to cooperate in their investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys and threatened a 'compulsory process' if the White House continues to be unresponsive.

"'Even without a single document or witness interview provided by the White House,' the congressmen wrote, 'it is clear that the White House played an important role in the events concerning the U.S. Attorney controversy.'

"'If the White House persists in refusing to provide information to the House Judiciary Committee, or even to discuss providing such information, on a voluntary basis,' they wrote, 'we will have no alternative but to begin to resort to compulsory process in order to carry out our oversight responsibilities.'"

Gonzales Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that Democrats in Congress are engaging in 'pure political theater' by preparing resolutions of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, and he repeated his support for his embattled aide and longtime friend.

"Bush told reporters at his ranch near Crawford, Tex., that the attorney general 'has done nothing wrong' in the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys last year."

James Gerstenzang notes in the Los Angeles Times: "But the president did not respond directly when asked whether he expected Gonzales to serve until Bush's term ends on Jan. 20, 2009."

David Gregory reported on the NBC Nightly News: "The White House felt the President had to go out there and say something pretty tough today -- really his strongest statement of support in several weeks.

"Top White House advisers saying tonight the message from the president to Republicans in particular is this: Don't let Democrats get away with this kind of vote, this kind of measure, or else they'll only do it on other issues. . . . Whether it's the war or other issues, they'll have similar no-confidence votes."

From the transcript: "I stand by Al Gonzales and I would hope that people would be more sober in how they address these important issues. And they ought to get the job done of passing legislation, as opposed to figuring out how to be actors on the political theater stage."

Jim Rutenberg and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "In addressing Congress broadly, his remarks also seemed aimed at some fellow Republicans, five of whom have called on Mr. Gonzales to resign. Others have expressed reservations about his leadership.

"But with the president's appointed head of the World Bank, Paul D. Wolfowitz, recently resigning amid accusations that he arranged a raise at the bank for his girlfriend, White House officials seem more intent than ever to stand by Mr. Gonzales. . . .

"Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director, said that Mr. Gonzales's situation was unlike that of Mr. Wolfowitz and that Mr. Bush's support for Mr. Gonzales 'has never wavered.' (Mr. Bush maintained his support for Mr. Wolfowitz until the end, as well.)"

Editorial Watch

Via washingtonpost.com's Editorialist blog, the St. Petersburg Times editorial board writes: "Now that it has been arranged to have Paul Wolfowitz walk out the door at the World Bank, there is one bit of unfinished business: Alberto Gonzales. The attorney general is a cooked goose, except he and President Bush don't recognize the oven's been turned on. The revelations keep coming about Gonzales' lack of candor and his incompetence. The sooner he goes, the sooner professionalism and credibility will return to the Justice Department."

And the Des Moines Register editorial board writes: "He no longer has the support of a growing number of members of Congress, including from within the Republican Party. He does not deserve the support of the American people. If he will not resign, and if the president will not fire him, Congress should begin proceedings to impeach him.

"That should be just the beginning of the work of Congress, however. Based on new details that emerged before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, more questions must be asked of Bush administration officials, including whether President Bush personally -- and in contradiction of the advice of his attorney general and the Justice Department's top legal adviser -- directed spying on American citizens in violation of the law."

Document Dump

Rutenberg and Johnston write in the Times that "the Justice Department on Monday released several hundred pages of internal communications and other documents, including previously withheld e-mail messages, that provided fresh insights into the Gonzales situation. Specifically, the documents showed the scramble by White House and Justice Department officials to limit damage caused by the uproar over the dismissals of United States attorneys as Congress was starting its inquiry into the firings this year.

"The department turned over the documents to House and Senate investigators before Wednesday's appearance at the House Judiciary Committee by Monica Goodling, the department's former White House liaison, who is testifying under a grant of immunity."

The readers at TPM Muckraker are combing through the documents.

Tim Grieve, in Salon, finds this fascinating and troubling e-mail chain:

"On March 3, [Justice Department spokesman Brian] Roehrkasse forwarded to his Justice Department colleagues a copy of a Washington Post story on the purge that he said was 'far better than most recent Post stories on this subject.' The piece minimized White House involvement in the purge; quoting sources, it said that the White House had approved the list of prosecutors to be fired only after 'senior Justice Department officials identified the prosecutors they believed were not doing enough to carry out President Bush's policies on immigration, firearms and other issues.' For the folks working the issue at the Department of Justice, that amounted to a victory. Deputy Attorney General Richard Hertling declared the Post's piece 'by far and away the best story I've seen on the subject' and expressed relief that an accompanying Post editorial-- 'The Justice Department's firing of a group of U.S. attorneys is neither as sinister as critics suggest nor as benign as the department would have you believe' -- was 'not a bad beating, though against our interests.'

"'Great work, Brian,' [then-Gonzales chief of staff Kyle] Sampson said in an e-mail to group. 'Kudos to you and the [deputy attorney general].'"

Plan B Watch

Three different potential Plan Bs in the news today.

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Bush and his senior military and foreign policy advisers are beginning to discuss a 'post-surge' strategy for Iraq that they hope could gain bipartisan political support. The new policy would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available."

Stewart M. Powell writes for Hearst Newspapers: "The Bush administration is quietly on track to nearly double the number of combat troops in Iraq this year, an analysis of Pentagon deployment orders showed Monday.

"The little-noticed second surge, designed to reinforce U.S. troops in Iraq, is being executed by sending more combat brigades and extending tours of duty for troops already there."

Robert H. Reid writes for the Associated Press: "Iraq's military is drawing up plans to cope with any quick U.S. military pullout, the defense minister said Monday. . . .

"On Monday, Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi told reporters Iraq's military was drawing up plans in case U.S.-led forces left the country quickly. . . .

"It was unclear whether al-Obeidi's comment referred to routine contingency planning or reflected a feeling among Iraqi leaders that the days of U.S. support may be numbered even though President Bush blocked an effort by Congress to set a withdrawal timetable."

Impeachment Watch

Gary Kamiya writes for Salon: "Even if there were a mass popular movement to impeach Bush, it's far from clear that Congress, which alone has the power to initiate impeachment proceedings, would do anything. . . .

"The main reason is obvious: The Democrats think it's bad politics. Bush is dying politically and taking the GOP down with him, and impeachment is risky. It could, so the cautious Beltway wisdom has it, provoke a backlash, especially while the war is still going on. Why should the Democrats gamble on hitting the political jackpot when they're likely to walk away from the table big winners anyway? . . .

"But there's a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off -- and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush's warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America's support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It's a national myth. It's John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness -- come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we're not ready to do that."

Twins Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: " After a long, twinless spring, Jenna and Barbara Bush are back in town! The first daughters (Jenna in a maroon sleeveless dress, Barbara in a silver-white dress) spent Saturday night with two female friends at Hook, the new 'sustainable seafood' restaurant in Georgetown. . . .

"Spirits were high: Jenna got into a friendly chat with former Wizards/now Knicks player Jared Jeffries and his pals at a nearby table -- one diner saw the men send shots over to the twins' table."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the fun.

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "In a recent interview Jimmy Carter lashed out with unprecedented criticism of the current administration's policies. But George W. Bush will not respond with his own criticism of the Carter administration because he believes such attacks are inappropriate and also because he can't remember anything from the years 1977 to 1981."

Stephen Colbert: "Carter, I used to like you: Weak, ineffective, cowardly, you were the perfect Democrat. Now you're acting like you've grown a pair -- of peanuts."

Cartoon Watch

Walt Handelsman on secure borders; Ben Sargent on the war czar; Jeff Danziger on what the 'W' stands for; Bill Mitchell and John Sherffius on former presidents speaking out.

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