Set aside for the moment your feelings about the wars—both the one against Terror and the one in Iraq.
No matter with which side of those issues you are aligned, put those loyalties aside momentarily and tell me what you think the other major accomplishments of George W. Bush's second term are likely to be when historians start tallying them.
It isn't a trick question. And I know it's still three years from this term's completion, so things could change dramatically, but right now can you honestly name a single solid accomplishment of Dubya's, even one? Anything at all?
His effort at Social Security reform has become an embarrassment, more noteworthy for its complete evaporation from the public policy arena than anything else, just one year after he barnstormed the country to drum up support for fending off the “crisis” in that very popular program.
His handling of the economy has produced catastrophic deficits of record proportions stretching far into the future, with no hope of ever paying them down unless we reverse course from the route he's chosen.
His education, health care, transportation and housing initiatives are puny imitations of real efforts.
So in the almost total vacuum of solid accomplishments on the domestic scene, his one true contribution, the one I would have predicted he'd have jumped on gleefully, could have been to straighten out the unholy mess we face with undocumented foreign nationals in the country. By most credible accounts there are over 11 million of them, and their numbers are growing.
In many opinion polls, doing something realistic about this situation rates very high, almost as high as fighting the War on Terror. As a former governor of a border state, Bush must have formed impressions of what he'd like to see happen with immigration if he ever became president and had it within his power to act.
As recently as last summer, he sounded confident about puzzling together a serious immigration reform measure. Real reform has to deal with all three aspects of this issue: enforcement of existing laws; providing needed services to immigrants to minimize the health, education, crime and housing problems they can foster in our communities if those services are not available; and finally, providing a reliable supply of labor to significant parts of our national economy such as agriculture, hospitality and construction that have difficulty finding workers.
We were led to believe that a major Bush initiative in regard to all three was about to be introduced. He made statements about finding a way to recreate the bracero, or guest worker, programs from bygone days. Corporate America seemed onboard, as did several key Democrats. We anticipated a real sizzle and bipartisan support.
But instead of sizzle we got fizzle. And instead of bipartisan support for true immigration reform, we got yet another inadequate, ideologically driven measure passed along strict party lines by the conservative Republican majority in the House.
HR4437 passed the House of Representatives in December. It focuses exclusively on preventing more people (especially Mexicans) from crossing the border without visas. It envisions expanding fences, walls and some sort of “high-tech” security systems to reduce the number of people coming into the United States. And it puts money into hiring additional Border Patrol agents.
There isn't a chance in hell that the bill can ever pass the Senate with that kind of tunnel-vision approach. But its passage by the House means that true comprehensive reform will become that much harder to realize. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and working out reasonable compromises, the House majority simply played to the gallery and its prejudices.
Absent during the debate on the measure was any semblance of leadership from the White House. When clarity and responsibility were called for, we got deafening silence.
When the stupidity of building a wall along the 3,500-mile border with Mexico should have brought forth thundering derision and workable alternatives from the Oval Office, we got inaction instead. When we needed sizzle, we got fizzle.
We need a fair, workable guest worker program. It would take the steam (and the profit) out of the trade in human smuggling, and it would halt (or slow) the death toll from those crossing the desert for the mirage of a job in the U.S. If there were legal methods to come into the country to work, a huge piece of the problem would be solved.
But we also cannot pretend that there aren't 11 million foreign workers already in the country without benefit of papers. Their situation needs to be regularized. Instead of building higher walls, investing in radar detectors and hiring more INS agents, we should be figuring out how to make full citizens and participants in their communities out of those hard-working and honest men and women who have so much to offer us.
If they want to stay, they should be able to. If they want to return home (as many do), it is to our ultimate advantage if they go back as good friends of the United States, not hurt, bitter and angered by their experiences here.
It isn't too late for Dubya to salvage this situation. But he needs to act decisively. Nothing in the record indicates he is capable of doing so.