A political emergency

May 17, 2006

President Bush resorted Monday evening to the ultimate bully-pulpit tool at his command - a prime-time televised Oval Office address - to inform the American people he is dispatching 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border.

But the urgency of his message wasn't prompted by the tide of humanity flowing into this country illegally, which Mr. Bush acknowledged has been out of control for decades. In fact, he has regularly refused to put enough money in his budget to hire as many border control agents as Congress and security experts consider necessary.

No, the emergency for which the president pulled out all the stops is political: a sharp and deep erosion of his conservative Republican base, caused partly by a split on immigration, that gravely threatens the party's ability to retain control of one or both houses of Congress in the fall elections.

That hardly justifies further burdening National Guard units strained to the max by their service in Mr. Bush's disastrous military venture in Iraq. Hire more border control agents, by all means, Mr. President, but allow the Guard to return to its traditional role of responding to true emergencies.

Little of the immigration policy Mr. Bush outlined for the nation Monday is new. But some of it is commendable, particularly his call on Congress to find a "rational middle ground" that combines border enforcement with reasonable steps to deal with some 12 million illegal immigrants already here and to remove the incentives for their often life-threatening border crossings.

Much of the answer lies, of course, not in sealing the borders but in ending the complicity of employers none too fussy about legal papers for low-wage workers.

Perhaps if Mr. Bush had applied this level of urgency to immigration reform earlier in his presidency, he would have been able to get it through a Republican Congress. But as things now stand, the president's televised appeal landed with a dull thud - except among Democrats who either favor his comprehensive approach or simply delight in GOP squabbling.

The president's waning political support stems mostly from his handling of the Iraq war, which two-thirds of those surveyed in a recent New York Times-CBS poll said they had little or no confidence Mr. Bush could successfully end. But he's doing even worse on immigration, on which 85 percent of those recently polled by Zogby gave him a thumbs down.

Ordering National Guard troops to provide intelligence, surveillance and logistical support at the undermanned Mexico border for the next two years may briefly appease some GOP voters. But political rescue isn't their job - and shouldn't ever be.

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