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Few would accept it, he would deny it himself. But could George W. Bush be a liberal?

Today, the Senate begins a critical week of debate on landmark immigration legislation. And the President is at war with his own party.

The bill "deserves widespread support, and I strongly back it," Mr. Bush said in a recent speech. And as for the fierce opposition coming from Republican senators and conservative pundits and bloggers, who say the bill would grant amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrants, Mr. Bush insisted they were simply "trying to rile up people's emotions."

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Ironic. A Republican president campaigns for a bill co-authored by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, the personification of the East Coast liberal, against the conservative core of his own party.

Ironic, but far from unique.

Most people outside the United States - maybe even most people in it - believe the Bush administration has been dominated by neo-conservative hawks bent on tax cuts and supply-side economics at home and an aggressive, unilateral approach to challenges abroad.

But that agenda, and the albatross of the Iraq war, have obscured another agenda, one that Mr. Bush once referred to as "compassionate conservatism," but that in many respects resembles a conventional progressive approach to social challenges inside the United States.

"They are certainly policies that resemble traditional liberal policies," observes Michael Tanner, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank.

Perhaps the most important element of that liberal agenda is the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as the No Child Left Behind legislation that was also championed by Mr. Kennedy. The act focuses money and attention on failing schools, identified through state-wide testing, with rigorous requirements for schools to close the gap between average and underperforming students.

Conservative critics complain that NCLB is a huge, bureaucratic program that intrudes on states' rights. But Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton called it "a historic promise between the federal government and educators." (Nowadays she complains that the program is under funded.)

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It's not just education. The Bush administration expanded Medicare to include prescription coverage for seniors, a move that has been widely characterized as the biggest reform in public health care since the 1960s.

And it's not just at home. Perhaps most surprising is this Republican President's determination to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. Under this administration, the United States has already spent $15-billion (U.S.) on prevention and treatment, the largest international effort ever to combat a specific disease. Last week, Mr. Bush asked Congress to renew the program and double the funding, to $30-billion over 10 years.

In fact the President has asked Congress for so much funding, for so many things, that this Republican administration has racked up enormous deficits, peaking in 2004 at $412-billion. (In 2006 it had declined to $248-billion. And no, the money hasn't all gone to defence. In fact, in 2006 the U.S. government spent $499-billion on defence, but $616-billion on health care, $118-billion on education, and only $69-billion on homeland security.

It has been dubbed "big government conservatism." In Mr. Tanner's view, the Bush administration, in its efforts at reform - school testing, greater choice in Medicare - has expanded the size and power of the federal government, "even though the one and only thing that all streams of conservatism can agree on is that they are opposed to a large federal state."

And sometimes, events just capture a government, forcing it to act against its ideological inclination. And so an administration that once warned against attempts at nation-building is not only struggling to rebuild the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq, but is leading the campaign to prevent a genocide in Darfur.

Add it all up, and the stereotype of a rogue right-wing administration becomes harder to sustain.

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Harder, but by no means impossible.

"On most important domestic issues, he's the farthest thing from a liberal," insists Ross Eisenbrey, policy director at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

For every progressive step on health care or education, he maintains, there have been at least two regressive steps (increased privatization of Medicare delivery, school vouchers). And on labour and environment issues, Mr. Eisenbrey characterizes the President's record as execrable.

In that sense, accusing Mr. Bush of being a liberal is a mark of someone's conservatism, and accusing him of being neolithically conservative is essential to self-definition as a liberal.

Which is why the liberal press can't find a single word of praise for the President's often-liberal domestic agenda, even as the actor Fred Thompson, the latest likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination, campaigns against the mess in Washington, which is a Republican mess.

It is simply another proof of the maxim that, in politics, everything eventually becomes its own opposite.

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jibbitson@globeandmail.com

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