Fineman: Bush's Suicide Mission on Immigration Policy

Fineman: Bush's Suicide Mission on Immigration Policy

Though I've never heard him use the term, my guess is that George W. Bush sees himself as a hacendado, an estate owner in Old Mexico.

That would give him a sense of Southwestern noblesse, duty-bound not just to work "his" people, but to protect them as well.

His advisor, Carlo Rove, has explained that a system called "democracy" now gives peasants something called "the vote." It would be shrewd, Rove said, for hacendados to grant their workers' citizenship.

That's the best explanation I have for why Bush is in the midst of what may be a suicide mission on immigration policy—embarrassing for him and ruinous for his party.

An ungrateful base
Long ago, when he was running for governor, Bush told me that he was a "southwestern" Republican, not a "southern" one. As a son of the southwest, he wants employers to have access to all of that cheap labor, but wants to make the system more orderly, at least not cruel. He hopes (as he did as governor) to get credit for wisdom.

It infuriates Bush when people—in his own party, no less—are not grateful for what he sees as an act of heartfelt, enlightened generosity and foresighted management.

So he sounded like the Texas gunslinger he pretended to be as a kid when he squared off against GOP foes of his sweeping immigration proposal. His timing was perfect, as in wrong, just as he was preparing to attend the Senate Republicans' weekly luncheon on the Hill. "I'll see you at the bill signing," he said, chestier than usual.

He might live to regret such playground bravado. If you are president, the only thing worse than issuing a public threat to your own party is failing to make it stick.

It really is quite extraordinary. Here he is, an unpopular leader fighting an unpopular war. His two-term presidency is clattering to a conclusion, besieged on all sides, taking hits on everything from his attorney general to his general incompetence. And so he decides to do what? Climb into the ring for an ultimate fighting bout with the base of the very Republicans who got him to the White House.

Outrage and concern
As always, conservatives, who thrive on alienation, are spoiling for a fight. Now they have found it. Among the branch of conservatism fixed on "Us v Them" thinking, the enemy for decades was Communism. After the fall of The Wall, the "neocons" found a replacement Them in jihadist Islam. The old America-Firsters—what we used to call "isolationists," who distrust foreign commitments—now have a homeland Them, in the form of 12-20 million illegal immigrants, most from Mexico.

The domestic neocons want a fence, a big and real one; they want illegals sent packing to the extent possible. Mostly they want leaders to express outrage and concern. And they aren't a fringe; they form the core of the GOP. That is especially true in the South and parts of the Rustbelt, where the threat of being inundated by immigrants is less immediate, but the sense of estrangement from metropolitan, bi-coastal America great.

Of the more than 100 members of Rep. Tom Tancredo's Immigration Reform Caucus—which favors a tough, enforcement-oriented policy—only six are from the southwestern swing states at political ground zero:  Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

Overwhelming campaign opposition
Responding to the GOP base as it is, not as Bush hopes it is, nine of the ten Republican presidential contenders are ardently against Bush's plan to give a "path to citizenship" to illegals.  The 11th—soon-to-be candidate Fred Dalton Thompson—is almost as adamant as Tancredo on the topic. If there is a 12th GOP candidate, that would be Newt Gingrich. He adds a Churchillian sense of urgency and doom to the debate.

As for Bush, he has the Business Roundtable types (with a smattering of fitful union allies) and party strategists—Rove among them—who argue that the GOP has no choice but to hit the reset  button on an immigration "system" that was overwhelmed from the moment it was last "reformed" in 1986. The CEO types are no match, in what amounts to a GOP primary, for angry grassroots activists on a crusade.

And they shouldn't be dismissed as crazies. Bush's own dark view of post 9/11 clashes with his relatively benign attitude toward illegal immigration. Here is the question that clash begs:

Do borders mean anything?

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