For Bush, a Fleeting Chance at a New Day

Right on schedule, the opportunity arrived, just as it has in the past.

Deep into a troubled term, a president finds an issue and a moment that enable him to turn things around. The issue may be foreign or domestic, fiscal policy or social. But through a suddenly open window there flows a rush of fresh air and a sense of possibility.

In such a moment, a president may join forces with some of his usual adversaries, alter the story line in the media and bring forth a sudden success where none seemed possible.

That's the kind of opportunity that arrived for President Bush this month on the issue of immigration. Senate negotiators reached a deal in mid-May on a package they could take directly to the floor for debate, amendment and approval.

That would have been an achievement in itself, but it was immeasurably more impressive because it was reached with White House involvement. The day it was announced, the president walked out into the sunshine of the White House garden to embrace it.

It could not have come at a better time, of course, as anyone inside or outside the Bush administration will readily agree. The war in Iraq continues to overshadow world news, while the struggles of key Bush associates such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz dominate conversation in Washington. The president's own approval ratings remain mired below 40 percent in all major polls, sinking below 30 percent in at least one. The attention of the nation has been shifting to the small horde of contestants seeking to be Mr. Bush's successor.

Yet even at this low ebb of power and energy, the administration suddenly has a chance at rebirth. By subsuming the forces driving immigration with the traditional concerns that resist it, this president and this Congress could go far toward ensuring economic growth and social vitality for a generation to come. For his part, George W. Bush could finally prove himself the uniter he promised to be as a candidate seven years ago.

Such a turnaround would not redeem all the losses and reversals that have beset the Bush team in the past two years. It would not undo the mistakes and miscalculations. It would not solve Iraq. But such a turnaround could lift the mood of futility that has crept over this regime. It would create the prospect of a new narrative, a thematic counterpoint.

We have seen unlikely comebacks in the past. Ronald Reagan lost the Senate in the elections of 1986, leading to the debilitating Hill hearings into the Iran-contra scandal and the defeat of Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. But Reagan made a comeback by reaching out to the least likely of collaborators, Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union. Their deal on nuclear weapons was the beginning of the end for the Cold War.

In the next decade, Bill Clinton all-but-foundered in the latter half of his first term. Having lost both chambers of Congress in the elections of 1994, the most effective move Clinton could manage in 1995 was his veto of congressional spending (which forced a partial shutdown of the federal government). But in 1996, he worked closely with the same GOP leaders in Congress to get a health insurance bill, a minimum wage increase, a new farm bill, a new telecommunications law and a historic overhaul of welfare. Both Clinton and the Republican majorities got re-elected; and they proceeded together to balance the federal budget.

It's by no means certain that signing an immigration bill this year would do quite as much for this president. Other agreements would need to follow on equally contentious subjects. Iraq is likely to loom large through the remainder of the Bush term, whatever else happens.

But getting immigration done might well renew faith in Washington — at least for some in the capital, the country and the international community. Just having the prospect of a major legislative breakthrough has brightened the tone of media coverage since the deal was announced.

A new immigration law will doubtless displease as many as it pleases. But that's just another reason to marvel at the process if it passes. In seeking his comprehensive bill, combining tougher enforcement with guest workers and a (long) path to citizenship for illegal residents, the president is taking on the core of his own political base. Both his Texas senators oppose him, as do most of the Southern Republicans in both Senate and House.

Finessing this opposition will be daunting, as the issues involved divide both parties in complex and seemingly irreconcilable ways. Business Republicans want their current labor supply but not the lawbreaking that makes it possible. Many also fear the power dislocations that come from new workers becoming new voters.

Democrats meanwhile want to welcome the latter wave of immigrants (much as the Democrats of a century ago met the boats at the docks), but shudder at their effects of wages, benefits and working conditions.

On top of these factors, opponents have already won the rhetorical war, fashioning the word amnesty into the sharpest political weapon since the word quotas.

So if an alliance can be built to overcome all this, it will be a force worth remembering — and worth reviving for use on other problems. Even if it cannot bridge the divides of the Iraq war, it will be useful for the post-Bush era and the struggles that lie ahead.

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