President Bush wants to make comprehensive immigration reform the crowning achievement of his domestic legacy. In Yuma, Ariz., last week, he called immigration reform "a matter of deep conviction for me." The issue poses a challenge for him: Can he triangulate?
Everybody favors better border security. Bush said in Yuma, "Securing the border is a critical part of a strategy for comprehensive immigration reform."
Politicians who want to succeed him agree. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in New Hampshire last month, "We have to secure our borders, and we have to make that our first priority." And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "We do have to toughen border security. You will get no argument from the vast majority of senators from every part of the country."
The issue is what to do about more than 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. Bush favors a path to citizenship for some of them. He said last week, "People who meet a reasonable number of conditions and pay a penalty of time and money should be able to apply for citizenship."
Democrats running for president agree that tightening border security is not enough. "If that's all we did," Clinton said, "it would not constitute comprehensive immigration reform, and it would not deal with the challenges that we confront." Democrats running for president favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements. "Everybody who lives within these borders has a right to a life that is full of opportunity," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
The public agrees. By more than 3-to-1 (77 percent to 21 percent), according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll this month, Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants living in the United States for a number of years to stay and apply for citizenship if they have jobs and pay any back taxes.
Republican candidates are split down the middle. Five (former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado) oppose a path to citizenship. Tancredo said in January, "We're going to make [Democrats] explain why amnesty is a good idea." Another five Republican contenders (Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, McCain, and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson) favor a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. "I know of no one who believes you can just round up 12 million people," McCain said.
The president's party is split while the opposition party, which tends to agree with the president on this issue, now controls Congress. We've seen something much like this situation before.
President Clinton regarded welfare reform as a key part of his legacy. To achieve it, he "triangulated" by reaching out to Republicans, who gained control of Congress in 1994. The result: Overhauling welfare came up for a vote on final passage in 1996, and Democrats split down the middle. Democrats voted 25-21 in the Senate and 98-98 in the House. But Republicans solidly supported the president on the issue (53-0 in the Senate; 230-2 in the House).
Can Bush triangulate on immigration? Tancredo said sarcastically of Bush, "I guess he could be congratulated for changing the Congress from Republican to Democrat so he can get his immigration bill through."
There's one big difference between Bush's current situation and the one that Clinton faced in 1996. Back then, Clinton was on his way to re-election with a job-approval rating of 58 percent in the Gallup Poll. Bush's latest job rating: 36 percent in the CNN poll. It's hard to triangulate when you haven't got much clout.
And Bush may not want to triangulate. In 1996, Clinton co-opted the Republicans' position on welfare reform. But Bush is moving away from the Democratic position on immigration by endorsing more-stringent requirements for citizenship, particularly a "touchback" provision that would require illegal immigrants to return to their home countries, at least briefly. It's hard to see Democrats delivering for Bush on this issue the way Republicans supported Clinton on welfare reform. Democrats anticipate electing a president of their own party next year, and they'd rather do immigration reform their way.