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Will W. get his groove back?

May 21, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

PRESIDENT BUSH'S prime-time speech last week, live from the Oval Office, was part policy and part personal damage control -- the leader of the free world seizing the bully pulpit, being "presidential," no doubt hoping his poll ratings would rise. If it seems odd that he would choose immigration as the issue upon which to rehabilitate his flagging legacy, then think back to Nov. 3, 1998.

It was a midterm election during a Democratic presidency -- in other words, a time when the party out of the White House has historically made political gains. But by day's end, a slew of prominent conservative Republicans had gone down in defeat, even in the Deep South. The GOP actually lost five seats in the House and merely broke even in the Senate. In New York, longtime Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato was booted out in an upset. In California, voters sent a Democrat to the governor's office for the first time in 16 years.

On such a grim night for Republicans, the only bright spot was the two Bush brothers, George W., who easily won a second term as governor of Texas, and Jeb, who clinched the top job in Florida. Many of the GOP losers had focused their campaigns on President Clinton's moral failings, while the Bush boys touted a new type of Big Tent Republicanism.

In Florida, Jeb (who had failed four years earlier running on a more stridently conservative platform) called his election "a victory for inclusion rather than exclusion." In Texas, George W. garnered a historic 27% of the African American vote and, depending on whose numbers you trust, between 37% and 49% of ballots cast by Latinos.

More than anything else, what distinguished the brothers from the GOP pack was their ability to appeal to the rapidly expanding Latino electorate. But it's one thing to inspire the GOP-friendly Cuban vote in Florida, quite another to woo the traditionally Democratic Mexican American electorate in the Lone Star State.

Running as an incumbent, and against a weak Democratic challenger, George W. could have ignored Mexican American voters and probably still have won reelection. But, with an eye on the 2000 presidential race, Bush set out to prove his appeal beyond his home-state GOP base, and his calling card would be his credentials as a "compassionate conservative." Increased Mexican American support would prove the point.

During the campaign, he visited majority Mexican American El Paso -- a border city that the Texas GOP traditionally wrote off -- more than a dozen times. Rejecting the usual images of the border as a haven for crime, drugs and pollution, Bush argued that the region was an asset rather than a liability. And because in Texas parlance the border is synonymous with Mexicans and Mexican Americans, this economic message had ethnic implications.

But it wasn't just his message that turned heads. He appeared to have a genuine rapport with Latinos. He had grown up in a city with a sizable Mexican American minority; Jeb had married a Mexican-born woman he met on an exchange program while he was in prep school. By the 2000 presidential campaign, even some prominent Mexican American Democrats all but said they wished that their candidate had as much of a connection with Latinos as did the Texas Republican.

But just as commentators now see a broader political agenda in Bush's immigration stance, his so-called Latino strategy in 2000 was never just about Latinos. It had as much or more to do with convincing moderate whites, particularly women, that he wasn't a fire-and-brimstone conservative. Then came 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In 2004, the Bush reelection campaign had nothing to do with compassionate conservatism. That year, he didn't make as many explicit appeals to Latino voters because he didn't need their support to emphasize his strong-willed, determined side.

In last Monday's immigration address, the president's first from the Oval Office on a domestic issue, Bush was finally reverting not only to the conciliatory persona that got him elected president but to a theme that allowed him to demonstrate political moderation we haven't heard in years. Far from being a sop to hard-line, angry nativists, the speech -- in which he advocated for a "rational middle ground" -- took him back to the broad center. The president adhered pretty closely to ideas he had once championed: a nod to enforcement and an embrace of earned legalization. With his poll numbers at an all-time low, Bush apparently realized that reviving support among his hard-core base wouldn't be enough to rebuild his political capital.

The center appears to suit him. He looked more comfortable in his skin than he has for a long time. Tamar Jacoby, the Manhattan Institute's immigration expert, met with Bush in late March and said she found him "relaxed," "heartfelt" and even "eloquent" about the subject. He told her that after the Iraq war, immigration was the subject he talked about most.

Bush began his presidency as "a uniter not a divider," but after 9/11 you were either with him or against him. He seems now to be seeking to end his second term in the tone with which he began his first. But will it work? After five years of stoking the fury of the angry-as-hell right, that constituency may be powerful enough to keep the president -- and his party -- out of touch with the better angels of their natures.

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