The best and worst of George W. Bush

Iraq is such a monumental mistake that it often overshadows every other issue in Washington. But the capital is now grappling with two critical domestic matters, immigration and stem-cell research, that represent the best and the worst instincts of George W. Bush’s presidency.

To his credit, the president continues to search for a reasonable, bipartisan solution to the problem of 12 million illegal aliens now living in the United States. This week, voters caught a brief glimpse of a far-sighted and flexible president devoted to bridging gaps instead of widening them.

Speaking at a border patrol station in Arizona, the president said he was working with lawmakers from both parties “to find a practical answer that lies between granting automatic citizenship to every illegal immigrant and deporting every illegal immigrant.”

But “practical answers” have not been popular in Bush’s Washington. All too often he has governed as a divider, not a uniter, basing his decisions on a core political conviction: Never alienate the conservative base of his party. And no issue better illustrates the triumph of ideology over pragmatism than stem-cell research.

Only once has Bush used his veto – to reject an eminently sensible bill expanding federally funded research using human embryos that would be discarded anyway by fertility clinics. As the Senate prepared to pass a similar bill again this year, the White House vowed another veto.

As John Danforth, a former Republican senator and an ordained minister, has pointed out, the president’s policy on stem-cell research epitomizes the transformation of the GOP “into the political arm of conservative Christians.”

“At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing can be more divisive,” writes Danforth. “For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group is often to oppose the cause of another.”

It’s easy to forget how Bush governed during his first year in office, working eagerly and effectively with Democrats on issues like education and tax reform. We treasure a photo of the president, showering praise on a key ally, who is smiling back with good will: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

That photo looks very tattered today. Within months after it was taken, Bush was campaigning fiercely against Democrats during the midterm elections of 2002. He helped restore the Senate to Republican control but deeply offended his former partners, who vowed never again to help the president rack up legislative victories.

But something more profound was shifting than mere partisan crosscurrents. As Matthew Dowd, one of the president’s closest political advisers, told The New York Times, Bush himself was changing, becoming more isolated, more self-righteous, more “secluded and bubbled in.”

Many factors drove the president to adopt a “my way or the highway” style of governing, says Dowd: the mess in Iraq, the aftermath of Katrina, the collapse of his poll numbers. The result: Today’s White House “is not the same” as it was six years ago, and Bush “is not the person I thought.”

One issue that originally drew Dowd (a former Democrat) to Bush’s camp was immigration. And in this area, at least, the president has largely resisted the pressure of his right wing supporters, who have only one answer for undocumented workers: Send them home.

The president knows that’s nuts, saying this week that deportation is “just an impractical position; it’s not going to work. It may sound good; it may make nice sound-bite news – it won’t happen.”

On the critical issue of how illegal aliens can become citizens, the White House has shifted a bit from last year and now favors larger fees, heftier fines and longer waits. But at least the president is talking and thinking and trying for a workable solution.

Such open-mindedness is absent on the subject of embryonic stem cells, which could one day provide treatments for a variety of illnesses and injuries. In 2001, the president agreed to finance research on a very limited amount of genetic material. But even though most scientists now say his plan is not working, that federal support needs to be increased greatly, he has refused to revise his views. He is “bubbled in,” listening only to religious conservatives who equate the use of embryonic stem cells with abortion and murder.

Which model does Bush follow now? The immigration model, which searches for “practical answers”? Or the stem-cell model, which closes off discussion and rejects reality? Only the first option offers him any chance for success over his last 21 months in office.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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