This column was written by Marc Cooper.
Let's get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office. His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.
The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the President's right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the President were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the Federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.
They certainly aren't going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job. (Click here to read the entire after-the-speech reaction on MarcCooper.com).
Here's what I wrote earlier today in the run-up to the speech:
While simultaneously trying to appease his own right and pushing a comprehensive reform program right over their heads, in his speech to the nation on immigration tonight Bush can be expected to tear immigration baby right into two.
While the details of Bush's speech cannot all be anticipated, what we know in advance is that he's going to satisfy nobody.
It now seems certain he's going to talk tough and announce he's sending "troops to the border" — National Guard troops. This part of the speech aims at staunching the political erosion on his right, the ongoing slippage of his own conservative base increasingly convinced that Old George has capitulated to blue-helmeted globalists and is conspiring with Vicente Fox to give the southwest back to Mexico.
But Bush will really be engaging in some sleight-of-hand. Anyone who thinks that as a result of the President's order there are soon going to be U.S. troops with weapons in their hands standing steely guard on la linea is going to be very, very disappointed. The new infusion of Guardsmen, if it happens at all, will mostly mean the "troops" taking over some desk jobs and some technical chores, thereby freeing up more Border Patrol agents to run up and down the ravines of Arizona chasing our future cooks and bottle-washers. Some of the guard but might have an expanded role in surveillance as well; but make no mistake, there will be no phalanx of troops on the border. There's also the question of what sort of deployment takes place if the governors of New Mexico and California — as they have indicated — might oppose the measure.
So when it comes to the restrictionist right-wing and the hard-liners in the House that the President is now trying to appease, all Bush is going to do is tease them and eventually further tick them off.
The second part of his speech, we think, will be some sort of an endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform (a guest worker program and perhaps some sort of path to legalization for the undocumented already here). This is aimed at appeasing more liberalish reformers and at supporting — at least vaguely — the bill now expected to emerge from the Senate. Well, Bush might say enough to give cover to the more recalcitrant GOPers in the upper house who are only reluctantly going along with a reform bill, but you can also be sure that he's going to further cloud up the sensitive issue of legalization and of expanded legal immigration. At best it's going to be a back-handed endorsement from the president.
You can also expect that a large part of the reform coalition — the liberals, the Democrats, and the unions — are going to take the Prez at his word and be mighty worked up over the thought of unleashing the military on the border (even if that is not exactly what's going to happen). I can't imagine any lovefest from the left around Bush because of the coming speech.
When the dust clears, we might be closer to a Senate bill, but I hardly see any resolution of the immigration or border issue coming out of this.
Lucky for the President, in many ways, that immigration has been such a back-burner issue until just a handful of weeks ago — a complex matter to which most people have paid scant attention (at least to the details). Bush's leadership on this has really been grossly incompetent and irresponsible.
The irony is that it is he, the President, who pushed this matter to national attention to begin with. Coming into office in 2001, he implied that making a deal with Mexico was his top foreign policy priority. After 9/11 blew that away, Bush came back to the issue a second time, citing a guest worker program as one of his priorities in his 2004 state of the union address.
And then, after once igniting the debate — one that turned quite conflictive this Spring — Bush ducked and covered, basically going MIA. Now that the debate is simmering, with mass mobilizations of immigrants, a Senate racing to catch up, a House mired in bumper-sticker solutions, Minutemen stealing headlines, and his own Republican Party split right up the middle on the matter, the President — very belatedly — plans to make this a dramatic, prime-time issue. The sure bet is that 24 hours from now, after his speech, the issue will be only more confused. I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think so.
Marc Cooper is currently host and executive producer of The Nation's syndicated weekly radio show, RadioNation.
By Marc Cooper
Reprinted with permission from The Nation