Running on empty

March 29, 2006

Few controversies during George W. Bush's presidency have called out more desperately for his leadership than the sharply divisive, highly emotional debate over immigration reform.

Yet Mr. Bush has spent so much of his political capital on the disastrous war in Iraq that he comes to this clash of economic interests, security concerns and humanitarian values all but bankrupt. Just at a time when the president should be marshaling his resources to forge a compromise, Mr. Bush's standing and credibility with the American people - even among his fellow Republicans - are at a historic low.

Andrew H. Card Jr.'s decision to step down after 5 1/2 years as White House chief of staff isn't likely to quiet Republican calls for new faces and new ideas. Neither is any staff change likely to supply that intangible mix of pressure and persuasion laced with charm that Mr. Bush will need if he is to convince would-be presidents, mostly within his own party, to put aside their ambitions in favor of reaching a consensus on immigration.

"Don't underestimate me," Mr. Bush cautioned yesterday, as he called on Congress to produce a "humane" approach for dealing with 12 million illegal residents while also tightening the borders. Against high odds, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved such a bill. But that legislation can't become law until someone drives a stake through the heart of the hateful bill produced by the House, which is built on the foolish notion that the United States can - or would even want to - seal itself off from the world.

A former Texas governor who called for a sensible guest-worker program even before he got to the White House, Mr. Bush could finally deliver a comprehensive plan that might prove his greatest legacy.

If only he had some juice left.

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