The Titanic famously sank when its crew failed to turn the ship away from an iceberg they spotted in the night. The great craft was too big and was traveling too fast to avoid a collision. Its momentum prevented the turn that might have saved it.
"Momentum" is often used to describe some seemingly unstoppable movement, person or issue on the political scene. Pundits and politicians speak of "The Big Mo" when they refer to something (or someone) that seems to be riding an irresistible tide.
Such a movement this spring has been the "comprehensive immigration bill" which a Senate bipartisan coalition, working closely with Mr. Bush's people, was determined to enact. Pundits and politicians from both parties confidently predicted passage in late May, but amendments and procedural objections stalled it. After the Memorial Day recess, work resumed and passage was again predicted on both sides of the political aisle, despite clear indications that a sizable majority of the public was unhappy with it.
A few weeks ago I wrote in this space (1) that the American people were "...getting an in-your-face lesson on who is really running things, and what we can do with any objections". The ducks were in a row. It would happen. "Trust us. The country needs this," we heard from Democratic Senator Kennedy, Republican Senator Graham, President Bush, and various others. But the people were not buying. The Senate's "Titanic" was going to hit the "iceberg" of the public's will at full speed, and no power on earth seemed capable of stopping it.
However, a furious debate over the bill arose in the print media and on talk-radio, despite the best efforts of the legislation's advocates to keep the lid on. Probably no legislation in history has been so thoroughly sliced, diced, chopped, culled, raked, plowed and kneaded. Within days it became clear that many senators had not read the bill and had no clear idea of what was (and was not) in it. Talk-show hosts and callers showed that they had read it and that they knew better than its creators what it did and didn't do. In one hilarious incident, a talk-show's callers showed an embarrassed Senator McCain that he was misinformed about newly legalized immigrants paying back-taxes on wages they had earned while they were still illegal. (The Bush administration had quietly pulled the provision from the bill's final version without the senator's knowledge.)
Proponents of the legislation tried mightily to characterize critics and opponents as racists and xenophobes meanly opposed to immigration. They denounced Americans for unfair treatment of the willing workers who are "just doing the jobs Americans won't do" - the hackneyed line that ignores the ugly truth that illegals are really doing jobs at pay Americans won't work for.
Opponents argued that the bill would reward lawbreakers with citizenship and was thus patently unfair to legal immigrants who had played by the rules. Others showed how politicians' promises that the borders would at last be controlled are not borne out by the bill's provisions. Obscure provisions were illuminated - like "family inclusion" that will allow millions of new immigrants to enter on the coattails of those legalized in the great new amnesty.
Still, the Senate's Titanic sailed blithely on. On June 26, sixty-four senators voted for amendment cloture - four more votes than needed for the bill to move forward. This signaled to its advocates that the battle was won. The bill would cruise on to Senate passage; the House would pass a version of it; a joint House-Senate committee would reconcile the versions; and Mr. Bush would sign it into law. Victory was assured. The Titanic would crash through the public's distrust and talk-radio's "hatemongering" (and this time the Titanic would prevail).
And then, something miraculous happened - something that can happen only in a land of free people. At the last minute, the great legislative ship turned and avoided the collision that might have led to anarchy, violence, and ruin. In the space of three days, eighteen senators moved from "Yea" to "Nay". In a stunning political reversal, the Senate failed to cut off debate and move the bill forward for a final vote. The June 29 cloture motion failed, 46-53. The Titanic had turned.
The Great Turn will go down in American lore alongside the story of the "white-collar protesters" who stopped the hand-recount in Broward County, Florida, in November 2000. This time, thousands of citizens telephoned, e-mailed, faxed and posted their displeasure with the immigration bill until Senate switchboards were jammed and both virtual and literal mailboxes were overflowing. Ohio Senator George Voinovitch said he felt "intimidated" by the vehemence of the calls and messages. Senator Trent Lott complained that talk-radio was "running the country". Others grumbled about constituents' unaccustomed intrusion into the clubby, secluded Ivory Tower of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. Columnist Rich Lowry called the uproar "The Phone Call Mutiny". Senators got a hands-on lesson in republican democracy, as We the People seized the controls and turned the Titanic before it was too late.
An unknown wag once said, "For every complex problem a solution exists that is simple, straightforward and wrong." The illegal immigration situation is like that. After the robust public debate of the last month on the Senate's one-size-fits-all "solution", it should be clear that the illegal immigration mega-problem - i.e., (a) 15-20 million illegals already here, including unknown numbers of criminals and possible terrorists; (b) porous borders across which thousands more stream in every day; and (c) a corrupt business/government collusion that lets illegals find work - will require a deliberate, piecemeal approach and some time to fix.
We won't solve this mess with one "comprehensive" bill that merely normalizes the status quo and gives the borders a lick and a promise. The People have shown that they will not stand for it. And the debate has shown that the Senate's bill was one of those "simple and wrong" solutions.
Politics is a blunt instrument, not a surgical laser. Thousands of citizens calling and e-mailing congressional offices will not "solve" a problem any more than passengers can collectively run (and steer) a ship. That is why we have republican government, where our (hopefully) wise representatives address complex national problems while working for us. Some of them forgot that last part in recent months, but the People clarified senators' minds on the point.
It's time to stop fooling with ineffective comprehensive solutions and get to work solving a very tough problem in manageable pieces. We are certainly smart enough to do this. What we have lacked, so far, is the political will.
The clock is ticking, and the People are watching...
(1) "Dysfunctional Government"; AHH, 5/28/07 http://www.ahherald.com/content/view/1885/27/