The Political Week Ahead

If conservatives tried last week to put the stake in the Bush Administration’s immigration reform bill, this week they may see it rise from the dead. President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy vowed to push forward with the debate despite losing a cloture vote by 15 votes and lacking even a simple majority of support.

President Bush implored Congress in his weekly radio address to continue the work while admitting that “like many Senators, I believe the bill will need to be further improved along the way before it becomes law.”  Left unsaid was whether the President believes the “improvements” would address conservatives’ concerns about border security and the “Z visas” or would instead seek accommodation with Democrats on items like family reunification. He attempted to soften the rhetoric toward the bill’s opponents but he repeated his contention that the bill does not offer “amnesty.”

Will senators, who were on the receiving end of outraged emails, calls and commentary, have the stomach to revive the bill? President Bush will travel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to make his case. By week’s end we should know whether talk of the demise of immigration reform was premature.

Perhaps John McCain would be content to let the bill (and the furor it raised) die quickly. In Iowa on Saturday he remarked: “We’ve got other things to do in the Senate. Hopefully we can come to an agreement, but in all candor — a little straight talk — time is not on our side.” On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday he insisted that the immigration bill had floundered due to the efforts of “a very vocal group of people” which he described as “a segment of the Republican Party that is not a majority.” An end to the debate would offer a welcome respite from this vocal group — which critics claim is a majority of GOP primary voters — and allow him to focus on topics like national security and fiscal discipline which play well with these voters. Weeks more of the immigration battle will require him to divert time from the campaign trail and from fundraising needed to bounce back after an anemic first quarter.

This week will bring more clues as to Fred Thompson’s effect on the 2008 GOP presidential race. With the announcement he was entering the “testing the waters” phase, he jumped into the thick of the top tier of candidates in national and many state polls and immediately proved a successful online fundraiser.

If he wishes to satisfy supporters and combat critics’ who claim he lacks fire in the belly he will need to fill out his schedule (only an isolated appearance in South Carolina and one in New Hampshire has been announced so far), vigorously campaign in the weeks ahead and begin to translate his solidly conservative views on issues popular with the base into actual policy positions. In the words of a rival campaign aide: “He will need to define himself or have the media and opponents define him.”

As for Mitt Romney, his campaign celebrated the withdrawal of McCain and Giuliani from the Ames Straw poll and favorable poll result in Iowa and New Hampshire, reflecting the impact of his televised ads and time spent in those states.  Nevertheless, Romney will have to redouble his efforts when other candidates also go “up on the air” with their paid media and when the impact of Thompson (who potentially appeals to the same conservative voters) is fully felt.

Romney’s best strategy may to contrast his executive experience and problem solving record with Thompson, who in an AP interview was hard pressed to identify any accomplishment while in the Senate. Spokesman Kevin Madden described Romney’s advantage this way: “He has actually done big things and led huge organizations in difficult times, in both the private sector and as governor.  He has done more than just talk.” Welcome to the race, Mr. Thompson.

Rudy Giuliani continues to lead in national polls and the important early primary state of Florida. With strong second and third debates, he has regained his footing and delighted in lambasting the Democrats who regard the war against Islamic terrorists as “a bumper sticker.” By emphasizing government accountability and critiquing failed Washington policies he can capture the anti-Washington mood while touting his own success in reforming New York.  An increase in time on the ground in New Hampshire suggests growing optimism that he can appeal to “live free of die” Republicans and undeclared voters who can choose which primary to vote in on Election Day.

Candidate to watch: Mike Huckabee. Impressive in debates and a record of executive competency, he shows potential to break out of the second tier. In an interview last week with Human Events he demonstrated his skillful, direct communication skills when he commented about Islamic terrorists: “This is an enemy that believes they are on a mission, as the Blues Brothers would say, a mission from God, and when you can negotiate with another person, but you can’t negotiate with god.  It’s an absolute.” If money and organization follow good reviews, he may make news in Ames this summer.

In the legal realm, Congressman William Jefferson pleaded not guilty to 16 counts including bribery and racketeering. Although he resigned his committee posts, Nancy Pelosi will need to decide whether to pursue his expulsion or whether the crusade against the “culture of corruption” applies only to the GOP.

Meanwhile, to the consternation many conservatives, President Bush showed no indication he would rescue Scooter Libby from jail time.  Libby filed his appeal, represented by an all star legal line-up including Judge Bork and Alan Dershowitz.

Unmoved by Libby, Bush nevertheless chose to stand by the beleaguered Alberto Gonzales, who faces a “no confidence” vote in the Senate on Monday. While the vote is not expected to succeed it is one more sign of an administration under siege by an increasingly emboldened opposition.

Finally, we will see the end of another Supreme Court session this month and decisions on key cases involving assignment of students by race to K-12 school and concerning McCain-Feingold restrictions on issue ads. Conservatives may be reminded that Justices Roberts and Alito will be two of the scarce positive legacies of the Bush Administration.

So the forecast for the week: the lull before the storm, dark clouds on the horizon and all are advised to prepare for a week — perhaps 18 months– of inclement political weather.