Monday, May 15, 2006

Leadership vs. Showmanship
For I think the second time ever, I'm feeling a bit sorry for George W. Bush today.

(The first time was after reading a New Yorker story a year or two ago that included an anecdote about Bush visiting a wounded soldier at Walter Reed Hospital in DC. When he asked the young man what he could do for the troops, the soldier responded, "Make sure there's enough water." Bush ordered water sent to the man's unit by the hundreds of gallons--a small gesture, but one that suggested to me that in the face of war, the president must be as helpless and anxious as anyone else... not to mention much more potentially stricken with guilt.)

As you're probably aware, the president is scheduled to go on national TV tonight to announce his decision to send National Guard troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. Attentive followers of politics saw this coming at least two weeks ago, when new White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten's plan to preserve Republican congressional majorities leaked out. Tonight's installment of Karl Rove's stagecraft-as-statecraft is the first item on the list:

1 DEPLOY GUNS AND BADGES. This is an unabashed play to members of the conservative base who are worried about illegal immigration. Under the banner of homeland security, the White House plans to seek more funding for an extremely visible enforcement crackdown at the Mexican border, including a beefed-up force of agents patrolling on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). "It'll be more guys with guns and badges," said a proponent of the plan. "Think of the visuals. The President can go down and meet with the new recruits. He can go down to the border and meet with a bunch of guys and go ride around on an ATV." Bush has long insisted he wants a guest-worker program paired with stricter border enforcement, but House Republicans have balked at temporary legalization for immigrants, so the President's ambition of using the issue to make the party more welcoming to Hispanics may have to wait.

Of course, there are problems with this plan. First, it's making Mexico, an increasingly important trade partner, very nervous--and it could help Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (a potential ally of the leftist Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, and likely no great friend of the U.S.) in his close race against Vicente Fox's chosen successor, Felipe Calderón. Second, as Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Arnold Schwarzenegger have noted, the move puts further strain on a National Guard already depleted by the demands of the Splendid Little War. Finally, of course, there's the question of how we'll pay for this new action.

All this gets me to why I feel a bit of sympathy for Bush. As I understand it, what he'd really like to do on immigration--combine stronger enforcement of current law with a fairly generous program to put millions of those who entered the country illegally but are working and otherwise contributing on a path toward citizenship--sounds pretty logical. It's impossible to argue otherwise than that immigration has been a great, maybe the greatest, historical strength of the country--even though at every step of the way, from the anti-Irish Know-Nothings of the 1850s, to the anti-Semitic strain within the Populist Party 50 years later and down to the Minutemen today, small-minded bigots have raised hell at the specter of newcomers. Naturally, their heirs and champions in the DeLaystertner Republican Congress have passed an enforcement-only measure.

The demographics of the country--particularly the prospect of 76 million Baby Boomers retiring over the next 25 or so years--make it more important than ever that we bring in younger workers and take steps to integrate them into the national community. (For this reason, I'm ambivalent about the various measures to make English the official language... though I could probably get behind them 100 percent if such laws came with an ironclad commitment to fully fund English-language instruction for everyone who wanted it.) More immediate are the concerns of major Republican donors in the service sector of the economy--fast food restaurants, department stores--whose profit margins are partially dependent upon their ability to hire illegals (and government willingness not to enforce related laws). So Bush is caught between the fear and loathing of his Fox News-watching base, and the greed of his biggest corporate benefactors.

The irony is that his preferred approach, if sold well, not only might placate both groups, but is likely the best course of action. And here's where my sympathy ends.

In Team of Rivals, her wonderful book about Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, Doris Kearns Goodwin makes a profound observation about the art of political leadership: public figures must simultaneously be responsive to public opinion and seek to lead and shape it. Her example, of course, is Lincoln's approach to the question of slavery and the war. Historians might argue forever about Lincoln's true intentions on ending slavery, but Goodwin makes the point that the great political accomplishment of the first 18 months of the Civil War was to lay the groundwork for the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. A measure that, if promulgated a year or even six months earlier, might have short-circuited Northern support for the war and torpedoed Lincoln's presidency, instead helped the North win by reinvigorating abolitionist fervor and preserving the neutrality of the European powers. On issue after issue, Lincoln repeated this sublime balancing act, always mindful of how far the country would go while seeking to lead it in his preferred direction.

In the hands of a Reagan or a Clinton, much less a Lincoln, Bush's immigration policy might be a huge political winner. But when a president has so thoroughly committed himself to theatrics--and so completely undermined his own credibility even with many presumed allies--the leadership option is taken off the table.

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