Inside Bush's Compromise Strategy in the Border War

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President Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office Monday night

There was something ironic about George W. Bush giving his Oval Office address on immigration reform just as the final hours ticked away for seniors to sign up for the new prescription drug benefit. When Bush pressed for the Medicare Part D benefit in 2004, he was able to muscle enough grudging conservatives to support the greatest expansion of Medicare since its enactment in 1965. Last night, Bush was ostensibly speaking to the nation but his real audience was Congressional conservatives who are wary in the extreme of the President's "temporary worker" proposal and who want border security strengthened and nothing else.

But Bush lacks the political clout he had during the last election cycle when he passed the Medicare drug benefit. After the speech, House Republicans, who have already passed an immigration bill that's all border security and lacking a guest-worker program, felt free to disparage the President. "I'd rather have no bill than a bad bill," said Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican, told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly after the President's speech. Roy Blunt, the House Whip and among the most habitual Bush loyalists, dismissed the plan, saying he had "real concerns" about moving ahead on guest workers without providing enough border security. Conservative blogs went nuts. "He had his chance and he blew it," wrote PowerLine, the conservative blog.

Bush used his call for border security to appease those conservatives. But he also tried to cast himself as a reasonable centrist, fighting for what he called a "rational middle ground" between massive amnesty and rounding up more than 10 million illegal immigrants and deporting them. Neither idea is really on the table. (Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, jokes that Republicans had enough trouble moving 250,000 New Orleanians who wanted to be evacuated. "And we knew where they were," she gibes.) But Bush's attempt to thread the needle—coming up with a bill that's tough enough to appease his conservative base and still containing enough of a guest worker program to make it look like a victory—seems difficult at this point because he lacks the sheer political muscle to sell the plan.

So Bush found himself in his first Oval Office address in 2006 balancing conflicting passions. On one hand, he proposed injecting the National Guard into the overheated border dispute, some 6,000 troops drawn from around the U.S. On the other, he made it clear that the Guard's role would be logistical, not law enforcement. And Bush tugged on different emotional strings—at once invoking America's immigrant past and at the same time describing illegals as a strain on local governments who bring crime. He continuously used the word "comprehensive" to make it clear that border security alone would not work.

But Bush's speech did have something going for it: at least it was about something new. In many of the President's prime-time speeches, he tried to sell his Iraq policy to a country that was souring on the war. He affected an if-you-knew-what-I-knew-you'd-be-optimistic-too tone. But last night Bush at least was introducing a new topic, explaining to the country something they didn't know that well. And he did it in a manner that was civilized and gracious, plainspoken but sophisticated. "America needs to conduct this debate on immigration in a reasoned and respectful tone," Bush said "We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone's fears or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain."

It was the return of a Bush that people saw more of in 2000 and 2001. (Immigration was topic No. 1 for the Bush White House in the days before 9/11 pushed it aside.) But Bush's newfound moderation maybe too late. The country is polarized and so is the Congress, and Bush's efforts to bring them back together around immigration reform, while noble, may not be enough.