The Washington Times

Another hum-drum week for the Bush administration: a proposal to establish a permanent colony on the moon, possibly as a way station en route to a human expedition to Mars. And what was that other modest proposal again? Oh, yes, a reform of immigration laws that would liberalize and regularize the status of the 8 million or more people living in the United States illegally [to say nothing of collateral effects on employers and on those who benefit from illegals’ labors indirectly in the form of cheaper goods and services].

So we have a president who has cut taxes every year he has been in office, who has completely reoriented American strategy in response to the threats of a new era and toppled two governments accordingly, who has undertaken the biggest reorganization of the federal government in two generations with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, who has added a new prescription drug entitlement to Medicare, who has told U.S. allies to stuff their Kyoto Protocol and International Criminal Court as part of a more general message that the United States is prepared to go forward on its own rather than put up with hindrances from them, and who has now proposed that we colonize the moon and fix things for illegal immigrants.

In this context, it is somewhat hilarious to hear Mr. Bush’s fired first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, trying to sell the line that the president is disengaged. If this is “disengaged,” what would “engaged” look like?

The policy agenda has a political component, of course. I have been writing in this space for some time now that it seems pretty clear Mr. Bush means to minimize the influence of the social-issues wing of the Republican Party. He is doing so through co-optation, a rewriting of the rules of GOP coalition politics and the staging of strategic confrontations. The idea would seem to be a party modernization that enables the GOP to attract voters who are turned off by an emphasis on social issues.

Of course, the president would sign a ban on partial-birth abortion. He was adopting the position of just about everyone whose mind has been crossed by the thought that entirely unrestricted abortion is at best a somewhat dubious proposition. But Mr. Bush has also noted pointedly that the country is not ready to outlaw abortion as such, a rather strong rebuke to the pro-life wing of the party. He is using political reality as a trump card over a case based purely on principle, saying essentially that it is foolish for people to demand what’s impossible. The challenge then falls to them to figure out how to advance their views in the public square.

Mr. Bush also successfully split the pro-life wing of the party over his decision to allow funding of research on existing lines of stem cells. The evangelical Protestant contingent largely supported him, leaving only a smaller and less politically voluble contingent of Catholic opposition. Overall, the result had the effect of defusing the charge that the GOP is so in the grip of the religious right as to be anti-science.

Traditional GOP coalition politics is based on the proposition that you support me on my issue and in return I support you on yours – even if I don’t really care a hoot about your issue. If I have some principled reason that makes it impossible for me to support you, I will try to remain as silent as possible in the interest of the good of the coalition. Mr. Bush has imposed a new discipline on this process, insisting that your issues and my issues pass a test of political reasonableness.

I think the immigration proposal has a similar political calculus underlying it. Mr. Bush has provoked a confrontation not mainly with Democrats, but with the wing of the GOP that would like sharp new restrictions on immigration. He asks, in essence, what do we do with the fact of these 8 million or more people living and working illegally in the United States? They aren’t going home, now are they? Besides, what would happen to the agriculture, restaurant and other industries that rely on them? Who would fill the demand for casual labor?

Now, as it happens, there are those within the GOP who would reply to this that you could, in fact, drastically reduce the number of illegals here by starting to deport them on a large scale. Politically, this is the group at which Mr. Bush has taken aim. What he wants to do is demonstrate to them that their position on the issue is an exercise in futility. His message is that this scenario of deporting 8 million people is sheerest fantasy. It will never happen. And anyone whose policy preferences start there must learn and accept that the political system can never satisfy them. Then they can either get real or move on.

Mr. Bush is very ambitious, as he has demonstrated. One of his larger political ambitions is the scaling of his supporters’ expectations to a level he sees as realistic.