TOPICS > Politics

President Faces Political Pitfalls in Immigration Address

May 15, 2006 at 3:45 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Reports that the president plans to dispatch thousands of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border brought out varied opinions this weekend.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: That’s not the role of our military. That’s not the role of our National Guard.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), Delaware: You got to understand we have stretched these men and women so thin, so thin because of the bad mistakes done by the civilians in the military here, that it really — I wonder how they’re going to be able to do it.

HOLMES: And today, as their work resumed on an immigration reform bill, senators were anxious to know what new ideas the president would offer.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: I understand the president tonight may make some announcement with regard to the use of National Guard on a temporary basis to fill in the gaps and provide additional boots on the ground so that we can get to that level of security faster. And I believe that we should use all of our national assets to provide border security.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader: When we tell the American people how this proposal will work without jeopardizing the critical role that the National Guard plays in keeping our communities and nation safe.

KWAME HOLMAN: It first was reported late Friday that the president wanted to send as many as 10,000 National Guard troops to the Southwest. About 300 Guard troops already are deployed along the four-state, 3,000-mile-long border.

Yesterday, Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, telephoned President Bush reportedly to express his concern about the border between the two countries becoming “militarized.” Meanwhile, California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said on Friday such a plan would be unfair to the National Guard.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), California: I think the federal government should put up the money to create the kind of protection that the federal government is responsible to provide, not to use our National Guard soldiers that are coming back from Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, called it a political move.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: My worry is that this is basically a political P.R. move so that the White House can appease conservative Republicans that want a repressive immigration bill.

KWAME HOLMAN: According to the White House, National Guard troops would not apprehend illegal immigrants at the border but instead offer technical and logistical support on “an interim basis” to an overwhelmed force of Border Patrol agents.

The president plans to follow up his speech tonight with a visit to the border town of Yuma, Arizona.

What hangs in the balance?

JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, what suspense now remains about this speech?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I guess relatively little suspense. You know, the president doesn't exactly roll out a lot of brave new ideas in speeches. We pretty much know what's going to be in there. He's a guy who sticks to his ideas.

Listen, this thing is obviously mostly a political thing. I'm not sure anybody I know who is an expert in immigration think National Guard people are really the solution to the problem.

You can't really police the border at the border. You've either got to arrest people at the workplace and also give people who want to be here who we need a channel. So this is, as Governor Richardson said, this is a way to get Republicans back on board and to demonstrate the president's commitment to border security.

But then the second thing he's going to do is actually more substantive, which is to sort of lay his arms around the Senate compromise, sponsored by Mel Martinez and Chuck Hagel, and say that is an approach that makes sense. And the Senate was on the verge of approving that compromise. They're now sort of on the verge, though it's being pulled apart by left and right, and getting that through actually is substantive.


How do you read it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I read it very similarly the way David did. The timing, events have forced this upon the president. This not of his choosing. I mean, this is an issue, yes, he's been identified with throughout his entire career as governor of Texas beginning, but it's not an issue that cuts well for him or for his party.

Democrats have a major advantage right now over Republicans on the issue of immigration. The president...

The House-Senate Gap

JIM LEHRER: Now, why is that, do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, in part, Jim, it's a reflection of the relative strength of the two parties right now, but I think it's also a reflection of the House bill.

About a third of Americans endorse the House proposal, which would make felons of the 11 million people here.

JIM LEHRER: And that bill has already been passed by the House and is waiting out there to be reconciled with the Senate version, whenever it comes.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. That's exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But it's the felon thing that is the red flag.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's a problem for Republicans because, when Republicans are encountering is a lack of intensity, a lack of enthusiasm about the election in November. And there's no place that that is more dangerous to them than their core constituency or conservatives, who very frankly are upset with the fact...

DAVID BROOKS: If you talk to Senate...

MARK SHIELDS: ... that there's no border security. There hasn't been -- but it's five years now coming up since 9/11. And this is the first time the president has really addressed the issue of border security.

Rallying the conservative base

JIM LEHRER: Explain the politics among conservatives about this. Where do the division -- where are the divisions, and why is it so intense?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. If you're a Republican senator, you look at public opinion, especially among the conservative side, it's split. What you get when do focus groups is, for the first half hour, people scream. They scream because they're enraged because it's out of control; they want somebody to put the border in control.

But then you get passed that 30 minutes of rage, then you start talking reasonably. What are we going to do about the 11 million who are here? How are we going to have the workers we need?

JIM LEHRER: Here, the 11 million who are here illegally, what do we do about them?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and whose children are legal citizens.


DAVID BROOKS: And so, once you get past the rage, you can get into a reasonable conversation with most Americans, but Republican senators are afraid of the rage, because, you know, they read the polls and they know there's support for earned citizenship, they know there's support for some sort of guest-worker program.

But when your calls are running 20 and 40 to one against, you have trouble with the abstraction of the polls. All you know is you have a torrent of rage at the other end of the line.

I was with some Republicans this week, and somebody was saying it's 20 to one against this, 20 to one again this compromise. And another senator said, "I wish I had the one. All I'm getting is negativity."

JIM LEHRER: And the opposition from conservatives is about the guest-worker program, because they see that as a code word for amnesty, correct?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and they just say it's amnesty. They think it's just going to let people in. And to their -- I don't side with them, but on substantive grounds, they do have some credibility, based by the fact we've tried before and we've never enforced it.

MARK SHIELDS: Under Ronald Reagan. I mean, and that was 1986.

Jim, the other thing is the fault line is between the House and the Senate Republicans. And the House Republicans see themselves as the keepers of the conservative flame. I mean, they've passed a repeal of the estate tax; they've passed the tough immigration bill; they've met the challenge, in their own judgment, and the Senate has acted on none of these things.

And so Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip, is on record saying there will be no amnesty. I mean, if they come over here with a provision with earned citizenship or whatever, it's not going to be approved.

JIM LEHRER: Which is the guest-worker program, is it not?

MARK SHIELDS: Which is...

JIM LEHRER: I mean, there are all kinds of little things you can do to it, but that's what it basically is.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right. But David made a very telling point early, and that is, unless you have something in the workplace, unless there's some penalty and punishment for the employer who employs these people who, quite frankly, are the most docile, malleable and intimidated of all workers imaginable.

The National Guard issue

JIM LEHRER: So the National Guard thing is just a blatant attempt to say to conservatives, "Well, I'm going to do something about enforcement at the border. Just look at that. And if I'll do that, then you've got to go with me on guest worker"?

DAVID BROOKS: A friend of mine, Marshall Wittman, said there are these Republicans in the base who are streaming across the border away from the Republican Party and Bush needs a Guard to protect them and keep them in the party.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. The governors' objections on National Guard grounds, is that going to mean anything? Because Bill Richardson, obviously, is a Democrat who's got Democratic...

MARK SHIELDS: Arnold is more impressive. I mean, Janet Napolitano has asked for this, I believe, the governor of Arizona, who's a Democrat.

JIM LEHRER: Arizona.

MARK SHIELDS: And Rick Perry, I think, is probably in a tough race, so he'll -- he's not...

JIM LEHRER: Because he's the governor of Texas.

MARK SHIELDS: Texas. But I think Arnold Schwarzenegger is saying, "Hey, look, this a federal plan. This should not be the states." The National Guard, Jim, when you signed up for the National Guard, it was two weeks, you know, in the summer, a weekend every month. And you were expected, floods, tornadoes, events.

I mean, now this has become, you know, a military career for many. And they don't get the same benefits that military people do. They don't...

JIM LEHRER: Or the same equipment.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And they can't purchase in the commissary. They don't get the same kind of medical treatment. Their families don't.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, David, the president's been -- he's been president for over five years now. It's the first time he's done an Oval Office address to the nation on a domestic issue.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.


JIM LEHRER: Why is immigration -- why does immigration rate that right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Because if you look at the number of people who think it's a major problem or the biggest problem, it's just surging. And his whole base is built around this issue. They're just totally polarized.

JIM LEHRER: And you said that two weeks ago. You said this could be the defining issue of the 2006 congressional election.

MARK SHIELDS: I think for some Republicans who are scared stiff, it's the gay marriage of 2006.

JIM LEHRER: Gay marriage of 2006.

MARK SHIELDS: It could be the social issue.

JIM LEHRER: I see. I got you. OK. Thank you both very much.