Amnesty, American style

WASHINGTON -- We Americans like to think of ourselves as a forgiving people, willing to turn the other cheek to offense in the interest of getting on with life. Although the most conservative of us rail against "amnesty" in its many forms, we actually practice it repeatedly.

The Senate immigration reform bill, passed by all the Democrats and 14 Republicans, advocates forgiveness toward foreigners entering and staying here illegally. The bill offers them an eventual path to citizenship, as well as measures to beef up security on the southern border that prevent others from crossing illegally.

House Republicans vow that they see the political need for extending conditional amnesty. But they seem bent on watering down the Senate bill with their own piecemeal approach to immigration reform that looks increasingly like a means to scuttle any at all.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, harangued by complaints from employers of at least 50 workers, has agreed to a temporary amnesty of a different sort: a year's delay in the health-care law's mandate to cover employees. Rather than rejoicing over the reprieve, they and Republican allies in the House continue their fight to "repeal and replace" the hated "Obamacare." Admittedly, there's little forgive and forget there.

On the purely political front, amnesty is being sought for sex-scandal principals Mark Sanford in South Carolina, as he has returned to Congress, and Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer in New York as they seek a resurrection in public office. What was famously extended to Bill Clinton in beating the impeachment rap as president offers hope to each of them.

We're even seeing the extension of amnesty to former President George W. Bush, architect of the disastrous war of choice against Iraq and benign overseer of the Great Recession. His approval rating is rising in public opinion polls barely four years after he quietly exited office.

To Bush's credit, he is aware of the diminished public esteem with which he went out the door, and he has kept an uncommonly low profile for a former president. His recent and well-modulated endorsement of some manner of immigration reform echoes his views as a Texas governor. But he isn't regarded as particularly influential in rallying Republican ranks to the cause.

Down in Texas, the announcement of Gov. Rick Perry that he will not seek a fourth term was greeted, somewhat surprisingly, with some speculation that he might make a second try for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Such a move would be a bid for political amnesty of a sort, considering his abysmally embarrassing first try last year. He clearly demonstrated then that he wasn't ready for prime time on that elevated stage.

At the same time, we're witnessing the publicized if otherwise invisible quest for political amnesty by national security surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden. Having been branded a traitor in some quarters, Snowden has resurrected the same debate that seized national and international attention after Daniel Ellsberg leaked of the Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War era.

In a sense, the one individual who contributed more to the public debate over amnesty remains himself out in the political cold. Mitt Romney, after his remarks advocating self-deportation by illegal immigrants and writing off of "the 47 percent of Americans" he deemed politically forgettable in his failed 2012 presidential campaign, has all but vanished from the public discourse. Perhaps he wonders what Dubya has done to deserve amnesty from the American people after his disastrous presidency, and hopes to emulate it to snap back from his sudden obscurity.

An old axiom of politics for gauging a politician's public support supposedly is his or her ability to respond favorably to the question: "What have you done for me lately?" Now, with amnesty everywhere in the air, the question seems, simply and forgivably, to be: "What have you done to me lately?"

F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said in "The Last Tycoon" that "there are no second acts in American lives." We have plenty of them, for adequate reason, whether for 11 million immigrants seeing amnesty or a few lost political souls seeking redemption. That's the generosity of the American spirit, whatever label you want to put on it.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

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