“I’ll see you at the bill signing,” said a cocky George W. Bush in Bulgaria, when he heard the Senate had just fallen 15 votes short of voting cloture on the Kennedy-Kyl immigration bill he had embraced.
Bush returned home, went to the Hill and implored the Senate Republicans to resurrect his bill. They did, only to have it go down to crushing defeat a second time, 46 to 53, last Thursday.
Bush has sustained a major humiliation. But he is not alone.
Routed, too, were Teddy Kennedy and John McCain, the Chamber of Commerce and La Raza, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. For this proposed amnesty for 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens ignited a spontaneous uprising against the leadership of both parties, corporate America and the mainstream media, as well.
A defeat like this is almost unheard of in Washington. For when the establishment unites — as it did behind the Panama Canal giveaway and NAFTA — it almost always wins.
Indeed, just as it is a defining mark of a superpower that when it commits to war it wins, so it is a defining feature of an establishment that when it commits to a political course, it prevails. When the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, it ceased to be a superpower and soon ceased to exist. Our establishment has suffered a comparable defeat.
The Beltway was routed by a coalition of TV and radio talk show hosts, grass-roots activists and backbenchers with the courage to defy their masters. The regime was run off the hill by the country that it claims to represent.
Repercussions will be far-reaching, as they were from that Panama Canal debate. Ronald Reagan led the opposition in that fight, and though he lost, it propelled him to the presidency.
Consider McCain. Once thought to be the runaway favorite for the GOP nomination, he has fallen to sixth in Iowa, dropped out of the Aug. 11 straw poll, plunged to single digits in South Carolina and may see his campaign crash before January.
Among GOP senators, Jim DeMint, David Vitter, Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn have emerged as lions, while Jon Kyl, Lindsey Graham and Mel Martinez have likely suffered enduring damage for having chartered a Teddy Kennedy Republican Club.
Among Democratic senators, newcomers Jim Webb of Virginia, John Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri joined a dozen others to vote down the bill. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, also voted no.
In this vote are the makings of a new coalition. On one side, Reid-Kennedy liberal Democrats joined K Street Republicans to vote for amnesty. On the other, Red State Democrats joined the conviction conservatives of the GOP. Upon what were they united? Call it a policy of putting country and community before commerce.
Eighteen months before Bush departs, it is clear that his open-borders, free-trade globalism is no longer unchallenged dogma in the GOP. Three of every four Senate Republicans rejected amnesty. And fast track, by which Congress surrenders its right to amend Bush trade bills, expired Saturday. The Doha Round of global trade negotiations is as dead as the immigration bill.
If there is a rising sentiment in America today, it is nationalism.
Americans are growing weary of seeing their sons die in wars to bring democracy to people who do not seem all that appreciative. They are tired of reading of factories going to China and jobs going to India, while illegal aliens march in their cities under foreign flags to demand their “civil rights.” They are tired of reading about new billionaires as their wages fail to rise to compensate for soaring gas prices and the falling value of their homes.
The establishment is losing the trust of the people, who are coming to believe that establishment is looking out for its own interests, not theirs — and the two are no longer the same.
About President Bush, there are two questions: Does he see what is happening? Is he flexible and skillful enough to dump the Kennedy-Bush alliance and take up the leadership of the new center-right coalition that is forming?
In the Harriet Miers affair, he showed that skill. When the right raged against the nomination of his White House counsel to the Supreme Court, Bush skillfully withdrew it, sent up Sam Alito, reunited his coalition and won one of the signal victories of his second term. Reconstituting the Supreme Court could be a Bush legacy. The left is terrified at the prospect.
What should Bush do today? Graciously accept the “thumping” on amnesty, and seize the leadership of the border-security coalition — 90 percent of the nation — with a tough new bill that liberal Democrats will choke on, but the country will unite around. And kiss Kennedy goodbye.