Giving George Bush Credit on Immigration Reform

It's time for congressional Democrats and other national Democratic leaders to give George Bush credit on the issue of immigration reform. It is not only the right thing to do — it could help break the cycle of hyper-partisan "gotcha" politics that seems once again to have enveloped Washington now that the Democrats have taken control of both houses after the 2006 election.

My oldest son used to watch me on television defending the Clinton White House from attacks by telling me, "Dad, you have to give something up once in a while." The same advice should apply to the Democrats on Bush's stance on the immigration bill. Democrats would be wise to show the public that it can support President Bush when he has moved to the center and give him credit when he is showing the courage of standing up to his right-wing base. The end result might be not only to encourage future bipartisan approaches by the president, but also to demonstrate that Democrats are willing to stand up to their own rabid base of Bush-haters-no-matter-what. 

Ever since John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, political courage has generally been defined as a willingness to take on the base of one's own party on a position of principle. A best-selling book currently describes additional examples of presidential courage.

The Clinton administration, despite bogus charges that the president only acted after taking polls and determining the prevailing public opinion, demonstrated courage in that classic definitional sense on three crucial issues on which President Clinton stood up to his party's ideological bases: on NAFTA, in which he was willing to oppose the core organized labor base of the Democratic Party; on balancing the budget, which set him against the spending-side liberals in his own administration; and on welfare reform, which ended "welfare as we know it" and angered key members of his liberal constituency.

Now President Bush has shown the same political courage by being willing to stand up to the most extreme elements of his own base in the Republican Party.

The effort to find a reasonable compromise has revealed many legitimate tough-on-illegal-immigration voices in both parties, who are concerned about the costs, security risks, and lawlessness that have been the legacy of years of neglect under Democratic and Republican administrations. But few responsible people are comfortable with the racist or near-racist and xenophobic rhetoric heard among certain right-wing Republican Party extremists, including more than one Republican presidential candidate.

Further, there are Republican conservatives, not only on the cable and radio talk shows but in the U.S. Senate, who demagogically mischaracterize the compromise legislation endorsed by the president as "amnesty." They know that is not true — yet they still make the charge to mislead and scare voters who are genuinely concerned about the issue.

The definition of that word, amnesty, is unconditional forgiveness. Those who attack the compromise legislation as endorsing "amnesty" know that that word does not accurately describe what is in the bill. There are, in fact, many legal pre-conditions, fines and requirements before an illegal immigrant will be allowed to apply for citizenship, including being placed at the end of the queue; such conditions, clearly, are not consistent with the concept of "amnesty." If anything, many of us on the more liberal side of this issue, including this writer, regard many of these conditions as too harsh and support them only because of the need to reach some compromise on this important issue.

John McCain, once again showing the guts to stand up to his right-wing base when it is the right thing to do, makes the correct point: Those who oppose this immigration bill know that the votes aren't there for any other more draconian legislation and are endorsing "de facto" amnesty.

The other Republican presidential candidates who oppose this compromise, such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, have hypocritically refused to state how they would avoid the current "de facto" amnesty system or what proposal they believe could command a majority of both Democratic houses of Congress. As McCain rightfully points out, their silence, much less their cowardice, in refusing to spell out alternative solutions that can command a majority of the Congress guarantees "de facto" amnesty, with no practical change in the status or identification of the 11-12 million illegal immigrants who will remain.

This is a great opportunity for progressive Democrats to encourage George Bush's political courage and encourage him to move to the center on other issues as well, where he has shown some moderate movement in recent months, such as education, healthcare and even energy policy and global warming.

After all, Bush doesn't need to worry about running for reelection anymore. Now he can run for history. And the Great Center of American politics might actually be more appealing to him, as it was during his two terms as Texas governor.

One can only hope that is the case — and that he is ready to listen to the Great Center in America not only on immigration, but on finding a way of getting America out of Iraq in the near future and in a responsible fashion.


Mr. Davis, a Washington attorney, served as President Clinton's special counsel from 1996-98. 

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