Viewed through a political lens, President Bush's push for immigration reform this week could be seen as part of an effort to bring Republican voters back to his side.
The problem is that the GOP is deeply divided on the issue - so when Mr. Bush makes some Republicans happy by sticking to his proposed guest-worker program, he turns off the "secure the border first" advocates. A lot. Overall, immigration has never been Bush's strongest issue. A May 11-12 poll for Newsweek shows that 41 percent of Republicans agree with the president's position on immigration, down from 46 percent in January 2004.
That's just a five-point drop. Ultimately, then, there is little evidence that the noisy debate over immigration is the principal culprit behind the decline in support for Bush among Republicans, which has helped sink his overall job approvals into the mid- to low 30s. So how does his advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform, which has emerged as Bush's signature initiative of the year, help the president among his core Republican constituency?
It's not Bush's specific prescription that will help him, GOP analysts say, it's the act of getting something done. Right now, says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, the operative word is "frustration."
"It's not just frustration with the president, it's frustration with the fact that Republicans control the presidency and the Senate and the House, and Republican base voters wonder why we can't get action on critical initiatives," Mr. Ayres says.
Wednesday, when the president signs legislation prolonging tax cuts, he will have accomplished one of his principal reelection promises - and probably have helped himself among GOP voters.
But the push for broad immigration reform is what has members of both parties talking and arguing. Bush's latest proposal, unveiled in a nationally televised speech Monday night, includes deploying as many as 6,000 National Guard troops along the US border with Mexico for at least a year while the number of border patrol agents can be expanded. In calling, too, for a guest-worker program, Bush stated forcefully that he opposes "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, maintaining that his proposal for an earned path to citizenship for illegals would not move them ahead of those who have followed the rules for legal immigration.
In making the speech, his first from the Oval Office on a domestic policy matter, Bush has inserted himself forcefully into the details of a domestic issue in a way that departs from his usual pattern. Typically, the president proposes broad principles and lets Congress work out the details. Now, after that technique failed with Social Security reform, the White House knows Bush must be his own best advocate - especially as he nears the start of the final quarter of his presidency and seeks to delay as long as possible anything that looks like lame-duck status.
"It's crunch time," said Tony Snow, White House press secretary, looking ahead Monday morning to the president's speech.
When asked about the political implications of Bush's plan, Mr. Snow offered this reply: "Good policy is good politics." Later that morning, at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, presidential adviser Karl Rove presented the same argument on immigration reform: "This is about getting the right policy, and the politics will take care of itself."
In his address Monday, Bush himself used a phrase - "rational middle ground" - not often heard in his policy proposals.
"There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation," Bush said. "That middle ground recognizes there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently, and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record."
Not since the early days of his presidency, when he forged a compromise with Democrats on education reform in producing the No Child Left Behind Act, has Bush set himself up for this kind of thread-the-needle legislative workmanship. The trick this time, however, will not be to get enough Democrats to go along. Rather, it will be to fulfill the congressional Republicans' own rule of getting "a majority of the majority" to sign on.
Bush "is trying to get something done, which is the most important thing," says Charles Black, a Washington lawyer and longtime GOP adviser. "He wants a comprehensive reform ... because it's the right thing, but also because you're not going to get pieces of the plan through Congress without the others anyhow."
He adds that in pushing comprehensive reform, versus just a border crackdown, Bush could jeopardize some support with his political base, but at the same time gain support of Hispanic voters. Since the immigration debate has intensified, Bush's approval among Hispanics has declined, from 39 percent in January to 30 percent in April, according to independent pollster John Zogby. The Hispanic vote is growing fast and thus is politically crucial.
Bush can get a compromise bill that most voters will accept, Mr. Black says. "People prefer something to nothing," he says. "Republican rank-and-file voters want border security as a top priority, and they want some enforcement. But if you have those two things [in the bill], a guest-worker program is acceptable to them."