George W. Bush is looking for a legacy to leave behind, and he may have found it. His approval rating now hovers at 28 percent, but with a little more work he could leave office as the most unpopular president ever.
He's not there yet. When Harry S. Truman left Washington in 1953 the pollsters said only 23 percent of his countrymen were still wild about Harry. (Adulation would come later.) Pundits, historians and others who track these things reckoned no president could ever match that, but George W. has a good shot at it.
Like Harry Truman, George W. is a man with his own ideas about who he is and what he's trying to accomplish. No one but an authentic churl denies his stubborn courage. Nothing rattles his determination to win a necessary but unpopular war in Iraq, or tempers his dogged attempt to sell an even more unpopular immigration "reform" scheme. Unlike Harry Truman, this president is doing it by scorning his last remaining friends.
"Those determined to find fault with this bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like," the president told a clutch of immigration officers at a training camp in Georgia earlier this week. An exaggeration, but we don't expect precision from politicians. The president continued:
"If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people."
This was taking a play from the appendix of the playbook of the nutcakes on the fringe (though he did stop short of invoking Hitler as the model of his critics). Being told they don't want to do what's right for their country naturally infuriates those who have fought the hardest for the president. Many are men and women who demonstrated they were eager to sacrifice everything when the nation called. "There are legitimate reasons to oppose this legislation," says Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation and a conservative long before conservatives, compassionate or otherwise, were cool. "I don't think it behooves the president to call people names or make accusations against them if they disagree with him."
Jeff Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama, was similarly wounded. "That's hurtful language," he said of the president's venomous needle. "If the bill did what they promised it was going to do, I'd support it."
Nearly everybody agrees that it won't. All week long, to the president's growing frustration, friend and foe lined up to say how the "reforms" only make things worse. The few fans of the "reform" legislation began to search frantically for loopholes to flee through. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, the two Republican senators from Georgia who voted for the president's bill, began to talk fondly about their second thoughts after they went home and were all but booed offstage at their party's state convention. Both men said they now might vote against final passage unless it is amended to their satisfaction, an eerie echo of John Francois Kerry's boast that he voted for going to war in Iraq before he voted against it.
Some friends of the president argue that the problem is not with the legislation, but with its paternity. Teddy Kennedy is the author, together with Jon Kyl of Arizona, and he described a scary prospect for the 12 million illegal aliens already among us if his scheme does not become law. "They'll be injured by sharp hooks, knives, exhausting assembly-line speeds." He tells how illegals in Massachusetts are "fired for going to the bathroom, denied overtime pay, docked 15 minutes' pay for every minute they were late ... fired for talking while on the clock, forced to ration toilet paper." (The senator, like the singer Sheryl Crow, is haunted by the prospect of running out of toilet paper.)
Mr. Kennedy's rant, in fact, inadvertently reveals exactly why the big-business employers want the so-called reform legislation it guarantees an inexhaustible supply of exploitable stoop laborers. George W. and his strange new bedfellows promise in return to seal the border, but nobody believes them. The president's oldest and most reliable friends think that promise will quickly become "inoperative" once the "reforms" are actually enacted. That's why the captains of the chicken-plucking industry love it. Some legacy.