As president, George W. Bush divides more often than he unites. He spurns bipartisanship and moderation. He habitually panders to the social prejudices of the Republican base. He serves corporate lobbyists and undermines workers' rights. He pursues electoral advantage at the expense of the public interest. He avoids inconvenient truths, intentionally misleads and refuses to admit error, no matter how grave.
For all those reasons and more, he is earning a reputation as America's "worst president."
And yet over the past several days, he confounded all those weary expectations by seeking a decent compromise on immigration policy that includes a "pathway to citizenship" for illegal aliens. Reaching out to Democrats as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill, he rejected the bigots in his party and changed his own position to reflect a more realistic and humane approach to this difficult question. Still more surprising, he appears to be acting on principle -- at the risk of alienating GOP leaders and many grass-roots conservatives, and perhaps even forfeiting the Republican congressional majority.
Those gestures deserve fair acknowledgment. For once, Bush has changed course for the better. Perhaps the best way to measure how far he has come is to listen to Sen. Ted Kennedy, who has spent years fighting for immigration reform.
In January 2004, when the president finally addressed immigration after doing nothing for three years, he proposed a "guest worker" program that would have institutionalized downward pressure on wages, without providing any ladder toward legal status for the millions of undocumented migrant laborers. Kennedy swiftly denounced the Bush proposal as "very disappointing," "woefully inadequate" and "far short of the serious reform our country needs to fix our broken immigration system."
Last Tuesday, however, the Massachusetts Democrat expressed very different sentiments after meeting in the White House with Bush and several other senators, including both Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid. (Right-wing Republicans who oppose the bill, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the immigration subcommittee, weren't invited.) Kennedy told reporters he feels "enormously grateful" for the "strong leadership" that he expects the president will bring to bear on passage of a comprehensive reform bill.
Like any compromise, the legislation that eventually emerges in Washington is certain to be imperfect. It may create barriers to citizenship that some immigrants will find impassable. It will require tougher border enforcement. It could attract more millions across the southern border by rewarding those who are already here.
Even a flawed solution is preferable to the punitive fantasy promoted by right-wing House Republicans, who would stigmatize all illegal immigrants as felons -- and presumably envision their incarceration in gigantic detention camps prior to deportation. They want to criminalize those impoverished workers or at best consign them to subcitizen status until they can be kicked out.
The most extreme nativists imagine cruel mass deportations of Latino families, or worse, in order to preserve "white America." Those extremists have branded Bush a "traitor" -- and some who were once his most fervent supporters on the far right are attacking him bitterly now. Jerome Corsi, coauthor of "Unfit for Command," the scurrilous Swift Boat Veterans diatribe against John Kerry, recently published a column in Human Events that accuses Bush of swindling "moral conservatives" on immigration and paving the way for Democratic electoral triumph. Corsi mocks the president for saying that it is impossible to deport more than 10 million illegal immigrants -- and hints that a nation capable of winning wars abroad can solve the immigration problem by force of arms.
How Bush plans to soothe such angry critics isn't clear yet. Embracing an idea associated with Kennedy (and his Senate colleagues John McCain and Chuck Hagel) has further irritated the Republican base, which is increasingly disenchanted with his presidency anyway. That may be why he didn't come out of that meeting with an explicit endorsement of the Senate bill. He is holding back, according to press reports, because he hopes to broker an agreement with the House leadership, which remains strongly opposed to anything resembling amnesty.
It is possible, of course, that Bush's outreach to the Senate on immigration is merely a political feint, intended to defuse an explosive issue until after the midterm elections. He and Karl Rove both have long sought to bring more Hispanics into the Republican Party -- a strategy that began to achieve traction two years ago but has since been stalled by the party's anti-immigrant image. They may believe that the pathway to citizenship will bring back Latino voters, and that they can retain the party's traditional conservatives with the usual tactics of gay-bashing, flag waving and tax cutting.
Whatever the president's ultimate intentions may be, he is behaving for the moment more like a sober leader and less like a partisan zealot. His tragedy, and ours, is that such moments are so much the exception in his presidency rather than the rule.