As the President's annus horribilis nears what must be a blessedly welcome end for him and his aides, they have just a month to try to salvage what had been a promising postvictory year. Instead, Social Security reform died; the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed 2,000; Katrina exposed the weakness of the Administration's bench players; a Supreme Court nominee fell; a White House aide resigned under indictment. Even Karl Rove's aura of imperturbability began to melt, not only because he is under investigation in the CIA-leak case but also--and more gravely for the G.O.P.--because for once he seemed unable to find a winning issue for his boss. If 2006 looks anything like 2005, George W. Bush will not only hasten his own lame-duck irrelevance; he will leave his party vulnerable in November's midterms.
Which is why it's curious and even a little dangerous for the White House to have picked immigration as the issue to planish a presidency's rough edges. Few issues divide Bush's party so much, yet this week the President plans to launch an extensive bully-pulpit campaign on immigration. He is scheduled to travel with Senator John McCain, who with Senator Edward Kennedy has co-written a bill that would give millions of illegal immigrants the chance to earn citizenship. That would enrage G.O.P. conservatives who believe the U.S. should secure its borders and deport illegal aliens, not reward them.
Like any good politician, Bush will try to play both sides. True, he's consorting with McCain, and he has a long history on his party's pro-immigrant left--"Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande," Bush has long said, in one of his compassionate-conservative locutions. "[When] you're making 50¢, and you look up north and see the chance to make $50, and your kids are hungry, you're going to come," he told Larry King in 1999.
But now he's repackaging his views. As recently as January 2004, Bush used his first policy announcement of that re-election year to unveil a guest-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain legal status for at least six years if they have a job and their employer vouches for them. The plan incensed conservatives. Talk-radio hosts and bloggers fanned resentment over "Press 1 for English" phone menus and borders porous to drugs and terrorists. In June, two months after a citizens' group called the Minuteman Project began vigilante patrols of the Mexican border, Bush told lawmakers he had not understood how important border security was to his base.
That's why Bush is calling this week for a series of border-security measures that will make his guest-worker plan look like an afterthought in his immigration policy. Bush will call for the hiring of more border guards and the use of more technology like unmanned aircraft and ground sensors to better police the borders. He will also push for increased holding facilities for illegal immigrants who are picked up. Roughly 100,000 a year benefit from a de facto "catch and release" policy, since there aren't enough beds for them.