Friday, June 8, 2007

When there’s poison in the air, everybody gets sick.

Even George W. Bush, though far from the madding crowd at home, can feel the poison that threatens to kill the coalition of Republicans, conservatives, independents and others that wrought so much positive change at the end of the 20th century.

The president’s immigration “reform” bill has been on the verge of crumbling all week, with a fragile coalition of eager Democrats and intimidated Republicans beating back attempts to amend it to death. Yesterday was a day of chaos and confusion, with the president’s allies and the president’s usual tormentors trying to prevent a filibuster that would kill it graveyard dead. At the end of the day, nothing was really settled. Slow painful death is always ugly and hard to watch.

The president’s dilemma is that he’s trying to sell unwanted defective goods and everybody knows it. John McCain concedes that this isn’t legislation that he would have written — he’s glad his name is not on it — but he expects everybody to applaud, anyway. The president concedes that it isn’t perfect, and he’s surprised that the conservative Republicans whose patriotism he questioned the other day were offended by his remarks. The only argument for it is that, yes, the legislation stinks like a dead dog left at the side of the highway, but everyone should swallow it, anyway, because it might someday be good for you. This is of a piece with the traditional Republican campaign slogan: “Vote Republican, we’re not as bad as you think.”

The president’s men drew straws to see who would defend the president at the White House and Tony Snow, the press secretary, drew the short one. Tony, no doubt hobbled by his good newspaperman’s ability to recognize the barnyard when he gets a whiff of it, did his manful best. “The president was surprised by the reaction,” he said of the disbelieving anger of the president’s oldest and most reliable friends. “The speech in Georgia was, ‘We’ve got a serious problem, and we need to fix it.’ ”

But that’s not what the president said. “If you want to kill the bill,” he told the audience in Georgia, “if you don’t want to do what’s right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all.”

The problem for the president and his unlikely Democratic allies is that nobody believes solving the problem is what the immigration bill is about. Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez say the “guest worker” provision is “critical” to discourage illegal border crossing. But this is widely perceived by everybody but a few special pleaders on opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as the most brazen bunkum of all. An earlier amnesty, in 1986, was touted as the way to seal the world’s most porous border. There were 2 million illegals in the country then. Now it’s 12 million and counting, the border is more porous than ever, and the proponents of this amnesty neither intend nor want to do anything but talk about it. The point of this amnesty is to assure a steady supply of both legal and illegal low-pay stoop labor that can be easily manipulated and abused. It will eventually become a reliable Democratic voting bloc, and in the meantime the chicken plucking and potato-digging industries will get their due.

So poisonous has the atmosphere become that the president has been told, not so politely, to stay away from the debate. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, says lobbying by George W. would be counterproductive. “We don’t need him,” he said yesterday. “I don’t think his comments last week were helpful.” There were enough blundering Republican senators already in Washington to keep hard feelings intact. Before John McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina cast their votes against an amendment to prevent amnesty for illegals waiting to be deported, they went over to huddle with Teddy Kennedy to make sure their votes were aligned with his.

The poison atmosphere leads to even darker speculation. Did the president pick a fight with Vladimir Putin, goading him into a war of sharp words over a missile shield, as a way of throwing a little red meat to the conservatives back home? If so, it probably isn’t working. A new poll, taken for the Associated Press, finds that the president’s approval has declined to 32 percent, sinking toward Harry Truman’s final 23 percent. Matching hard-headed Harry may be the only legacy available to George W.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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