Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Ne Sprechen Sie 'Geistverker'

As in many big speeches, what was NOT in President Bush's address on immigration may have been well more important than what was. A cursory look reveals no less than six uses of the word "temporary", as in "temporary worker."

Second, to secure our border we must create a temporary worker program.

...I support a temporary worker program that would create a legal path for foreign workers to enter our country in an orderly way, for a limited period of time....

Every worker who applies for the program would be required to pass criminal background checks. And temporary workers must return to their home country at the conclusion of their stay.
A temporary worker program would meet the needs of our economy, and it would give honest immigrants a way to provide for their families while respecting the law.
A temporary worker program would reduce the appeal of human smugglers and make it less likely that people would risk their lives to cross the border.

...And, above all, a temporary worker program would add to our security by making certain we know who is in our country and why they are here.

Conversely, there is not one use of the word "guest," as in, "guest worker" -- which had been the Bush administration's preferred phrase in describing their plan to allow immigrants to work in the United States for still-to-be-determined finite periods of time.

But it completely disappeared in this major unveiling to the nation.

It's not difficult to see why. The word guest is rather nice -- and carries the sense of a social contract of sorts. A guest is an individual you invite into your home. That person might, at some point, overstay his or her welcome. But there is a feeling of respect and shared responsibility.

On the other hand, "temporary" conveys exactly that. It is decidedly finite -- with a hint of a business or economic arrangement connected to it.

Even before the high-tech fence starts getting built on the border with Mexico, Bush has erected a rhetorical wall between the United States and Mexico that didn't exist before. Illegal immigrants coming into the country are not "guests" coming into the U.S.'s "party" and overstaying their welcome. They are individuals who will be matched up with willing employers on a temporary basis.

The traditional historical ties with Mexico are no longer to be emphasized. Instead, the relationship is built on economics -- in essence, the same way that that NAFTA and CAFTA have been negotiated.

This is a rather significant rhetorical shift. Ever since Bush was governor of Texas, he has discussed Mexico and the United States as "neighbors" (you know -- folks you feel comfortable with to knock on their door to borrow flour, a lawnmower, employees). To his credit, Bush never took the anti-immigration tactic adopted by then-California Governor Pete Wilson a decade ago. That's a major reason why Bush has had better-than-average-GOP poll numbers from Hispanics.

However, in the new vocabulary of immigration, Mexico and the U.S. are part of a broader economic partnership in which workers on one side will have to recognize the new reality -- as will the American corporations and homeowners who wish to hire them.

This shift signifies a realization that he is no longer
driving this car:
President Bush once saw the immigration issue as an opportunity to expand the Republican Party by attracting more Hispanic voters with a message of tolerance and inclusion. His nationally televised speech last night was an admission that the issue has now become a problem that, if not managed carefully, could quickly become a historic liability for his party.

The immigration debate that reopened in the Senate yesterday offers Republicans an unpalatable political trade-off. Disappointing conservative, anti-illegal-immigration forces could demoralize a crucial constituency and depress turnout in the November elections at a time when every vote appears important to the GOP. Energizing only those conservatives risks destroying the president's long-sought goal of building a durable Republican majority by normalizing his party's relations with the rapidly growing Latino community.
Rather than pushing the issue -- which, to his credit, he started to do in the earliest days of his administration -- he has now been forced to react to it. He is squeezed by the border-control security folks on his right and the "guest-worker/full amnesty" people to his left (which, to be honest, is pretty close to where he was at the beginning). The "middle course" that he has adopted is Bush's stylistic move to get closer to his own base.

How ironic: In moving to his right, Bush is actually adopting the Bill Clinton post-'94 triangulation method: He wants to be seen as the "third way." Will it work? Tough to say. It made sense for Clinton to distance himself from his left and try to co-opt the policies of the right (i.e. welfare reform and balanced budgets). Bush, in contrast, is distancing himself from his own inclinations in order to co-opt the harder-edged rhetoric of his own right.

It's a much tougher dance -- and a conceivably much harder sell.

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