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Democratic Governors Warn White House On Immigration

Several Democratic Governors are apparently concerned about the political impact of the Obama Administration’s lawsuit against Arizona’s immigration law:

BOSTON — In a private meeting with White House officials this weekend, Democratic governors voiced deep anxiety about the Obama administration’s suit against Arizona’s new immigration law, worrying that it could cost a vulnerable Democratic Party in the fall elections.

While the weak economy dominated the official agenda at the summer meeting here of the National Governors Association, concern over immigration policy pervaded the closed-door session between Democratic governors and White House officials and simmered throughout the three-day event.

At the Democrats’ meeting on Saturday, some governors bemoaned the timing of the Justice Department lawsuit, according to two governors who spoke anonymously because the discussion was private.

“Universally the governors are saying, ‘We’ve got to talk about jobs,’ ” Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said in an interview. “And all of a sudden we have immigration going on.”

He added, “It is such a toxic subject, such an important time for Democrats.”

(…)

Some Democrats also joined Republicans in calling for Congress to pass an immigration policy overhaul this year.

“There are 535 members of Congress,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a Democrat. “Certainly somebody back there can chew gum and hold the basketball at the same time. This is not an either-or.”

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico praised the Justice Department’s lawsuit, saying his fellow Democrats’ concerns were “misguided.”

“Policy-wise it makes sense,” said Mr. Richardson, who is Hispanic and who leaves office this year on term limits, “and Obama is popular with Hispanic voters and this is going to be a popular move with them nationally.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland — a Democrat who voiced apprehension about the lawsuit in the private meeting, according to the two governors who requested anonymity — said in an interview that he supported it.

“The president doesn’t have control over some of the timing of things that happen,” Mr. O’Malley said. “When those things arise, you can’t be too precious about what’s in it for your own personal political timing or even your party’s timing. When matters like this arise, I think the president has to take a principled stand.”

But Mr. Bredesen said that in Tennessee, where the governor’s race will be tight this year, Democratic candidates were already on the defensive about the federal health care overhaul, and the suit against Arizona further weakened them. In Tennessee, he said, Democratic candidates are already “disavowing” the immigration lawsuit.

“Maybe you do that when you’re strong,” he said of the suit, “and not when there’s an election looming out there.”

Leaving aside for the moment the merits of either Arizona’s law or the Federal lawsuit, it does seem that the White House is making some very odd political choices here. Polls have shown repeatedly that a large majority of Americans support Arizona’s law and a new polls shows that similar majorities oppose the Justice Department’s decision to sue the State of Arizona. Politically, the White House is clearly on the wrong side of this issue.

While politics shouldn’t necessarily influence a decision to challenge a law that may very well be unconstitutional, the lawsuit is just the latest example of what has been a very odd response to the Arizona law by the White House. From the beginning, the White House has seemingly treated Arizona, and its Governor, as the enemy and has declined to put forward any real immigration policy of its own.

While I don’t think it’s fair to say that the White House is holding border security hostage to a deal on amnesty, as Jon Kyl and John McCain have claimed, it seems clear to me that they’ve mishandled this issue as badly as the Republicans have. The difference is that the GOP seems to be on the popular side of the issue while the President seems content to treat immigration as an academic debate without political consequence. Something tells me that strategy isn’t going to work.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. sam says:

    “Politically, the White House is clearly on the wrong side of this issue.”

    That is, unless you take the long view. The Republicans are in the process of reducing themselves to the Grand Old White Peoples Party (and I do mean reducing). Ten years from now, the White House decision might not look at all wrong-headed.

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  2. I keep hearing that, and it may turn out to be true in the end but I’ve seen polls that show that even a majority of Hispanics in states like Arizona and Texas support the Arizona law.

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  3. sam says:

    I keep thinking of Pete Wilson…

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  4. Fair point there.

    Proposition 187 was the beginning of the end of the GOP’s dominance in California for 20 years

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  5. Maxwell James says:

    In this case, I don’t think the WH’s primary motivation is party politics, but rather a turf war. The suit is based on maintaining federal control over immigration policy rather than ceding it to the states, and is intended to forestall the (very real) possibility of other states following suit.

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  6. sam says:

    Here’s an interesting link: Is Arizona 2010 Like California 1994?

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  7. Joe says:

    Isn’t it better to stand up for what’s right than be so concerned with the fall elections?

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  8. pylon says:

    What Joe said.

    The post says “While politics shouldn’t necessarily influence a decision to challenge a law that may very well be unconstitutional, the lawsuit is just the latest example of what has been a very odd response to the Arizona law by the White House.”

    If the Obama admin thinks the law is wrong and unconstitutional, what is a non-odd response? What were the other odd responses – his previous expressions of disagreement?

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  9. TangoMan says:

    That is, unless you take the long view. The Republicans are in the process of reducing themselves to the Grand Old White Peoples Party (and I do mean reducing). Ten years from now, the White House decision might not look at all wrong-headed.

    Talk about seeing things through rose-colored glasses. Political parties becoming associated with various racial and ethnic groups is a pretty universal feature. Look at the proportion of blacks that vote Democratic. Look at the various multiracial societies around the world and you see the same dynamic at play. The Republican Party trend lines on the issue of its base getting whiter over the coming years is written by changing demographics and the outcome 10 years hence will be more a function of demographic trends than it will be about enforcing immigration law in 2010.

    As for the White House decision not looking so wrong headed, that conclusion depends on where you stand and who benefits. Will the decision increase the appeal of Democrats to non-white voters? Probably yes and that would be a good thing for Democrats. Will the decision have the same appeal to white voters? Probably not and that’s a bad thing for Democrats. The Republicans will lose where the Democrats gain and gain where the Democrats lose.

    To measure the ultimate gain or loss we have to have some indication of the proportion of the various groups that are affected by the nature of this decision. If 2x more Hispanics than whites allow their political perspective to be influenced either by this decision, the demographic shift or the increasing racial polarity in the political system, but the population of whites is 5x larger than the Hispanic population and the proportion of whites who are likely voters is 1.5x higher than the proportion of likely voters in the Hispanic population, I’m having difficulty seeing who this works out as a net win for the Democratic Party.

    President Obama is certainly trying to appeal to non-white voters by fighting to not enforce immigration law but how is this seen by white voters? The Democrats in Congress inserted racial quotas into the financial regulation bill. How will that be seen by white voters? Solid Democrats won’t have any problems with such political actions but the reactions of most interest will be seen on the margins of each political party – will marginal white Republicans been drawn to the Democratic Party by these measures and their underlying philosophy and will be marginal white Democrats be drawn to the Republican Party by their rejection of measures meant to penalize them and their children? Also apply the same analysis to non-white voters. Will the 5% of blacks who are Republican voters now be drawn to the Democratic Party because of looser border laws and more quotas in hiring? Will the 40% of Hispanics who are Republican now be enticed into the Democratic fold by the promise of looser borders and more racial quotas in the finance sector?

    Look, the underlying principle to this dynamic is that when one party takes a proactive step to inject race/ethnicity into its policy then there will be a countervailing reaction from the other party even if the reaction is not planned. The Democrats here are making a purposeful political statement but the Republicans are not purposefully setting out to capture more of the white vote, the proportion of the white vote that will go Republican will likely rise simply as a reaction to Democratic initiatives which work against their interests.

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  10. sam says:

    Talk about seeing things through rose-colored glasses. Actually, those are brown-colored glasses, and we do have historical support for the proposition that when the Republican party plays to its white base by targeting latinos, the outcome is not happy for it.

    [T]he proportion of the white vote that will go Republican will likely rise simply as a reaction to Democratic initiatives which work against their interests. No doubt. But will it be enough to offset the proportion of the latino vote that will go Democratic simply as a reaction to, etc? I don’t think so. I was watching the world cup last night, and part of NBC’s (or whoever) presentation was to show various cities around the world and the interest generated by the cup. One of the cities was New York, which the reporter said was, from what she could see around town, almost completely for Spain. Not surprising, she said, when you consider the 23% of the New York population is Hispanic. That’s the growing demographic the Republicans are up against, and it’s going to swamp them if they pull a Pete Wilson and substitute short-term victories for long-term success.

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  11. TangoMan says:

    But will it be enough to offset the proportion of the latino vote that will go Democratic simply as a reaction to, etc? I don’t think so.

    As I noted in my earlier comment, the action will take place on the margins. Here’s the way I formulate this model. Those white voters on the margin will be the most sensitive to the forces they see acting against their interest in the present environment and those further removed from the margin are less affected by the forces in the present environment.

    Apply the above model to the whites in the Democratic Party. As the Democratic Party becomes even more dominated by Black and Hispanic racial politics, each incremental gain by those two groups will knock off some white Democratic Party supporters who are on the margin. As these people fall off the Democratic bandwagon there is a rebalancing effect on the party and the relative proportion of whites declines and it becomes ever more difficult for them to influence the party policy, the party structure, and to field candidates which both appeal to their interests and can garner the support of the other constituencies under the bug Democratic tent. This will create a “new” environment and “new” forces which will act on the whites who are on the “new” margin. Rinse and repeat. Look at the issue of racial politics underlying the mayoral race in Atlanta – no white mayor for over a generation and a concerted effort to derail the candidacy of Mary Norwood.

    It appears to me that your analysis is founded on the notion that one can have a greater appeal to Hispanics by focusing on their ethnic interests without this having any effect on the interests of black and white Democrats. You can’t square that circle. If you’re going to pander to “Hispanic interests” then those interests must be satisfied at the expense of someone else’s interests.

    At the heart of your position is a very quantitative question. The numbers will tell the tale. Will a 5 percentage point gain, for the sake of argument, in the Hispanic vote offset a 1 percentage point drop in the white vote? Assuming a simple model where 15% of the electorate is Hispanic and 75% (5x larger) is white, then on first cut, the trade-off looks like a wash. Dig deeper and some troubling issues develop. Absent any new Democratic initiatives designed to appeal to racial/ethnic blocs the proportion of Hispanics who would have voted for Democrats is already 60% while the proportion of whites who would have voted for Democrats is 45%. So, to increase the Hispanic vote from 40% to 45% the Democrats will drop from 45% to 44% of the white vote. Will the Democrats see the same level of political contributions from the added Hispanic voters that they saw from the white voters they lost? Will they same the same political involvement from the added Hispanic voters that they saw from the white voters they lost? Based on current behavior, Hispanics don’t donate as much nor get as politically involved as whites. Based on current demographic profiles, which I expect will continue on in the future, Hispanics have lower levels of income and wealth than do whites, so a one for one replacement leads to a Democratic Party with fewer resources.

    The only road to success here, from a Democratic perspective, is to reap disproportionate gains from their tactics such that actual voting numbers, not proportions of population, increase in addition to increasing party member involvement and donations. Unlike your assessment, I don’t think that this is a likely outcome.

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  12. sam says:


    It appears to me that your analysis is founded on the notion that one can have a greater appeal to Hispanics by focusing on their ethnic interests without this having any effect on the interests of black and white Democrats. You can’t square that circle. If you’re going to pander to “Hispanic interests” then those interests must be satisfied at the expense of someone else’s interests.

    Explain, then, California in the wake of 187. There was no great white flight from the Democratic party and there was a brown flight to the party in the wake of Prop 187. Your mistake is to suppose that the the Democrats actually have to do anything in the sense of outreach. All they have to do is stand back and let the Republicans to the work for them.

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  13. TangoMan says:

    Explain, then, California in the wake of 187. There was no great white flight from the Democratic party and there was a brown flight to the party in the wake of Prop 187. Your mistake is to suppose that the the Democrats actually have to do anything in the sense of outreach. All they have to do is stand back and let the Republicans to the work for them.

    Your statement is mathematically unsound. You’re treating the California political situation as though it existed in closed system when in fact it exists in an open system. Californians have an option that Americans as a people don’t, they can out-migrate to other states. Demographers have long ago noted the disproportionate share of conservative non-hispanic whites who out migrate from California. Most of these people are not socially liberal democrats.

    Governor Wilson’s politics didn’t destroy the California Republican Party. Prop. 187 passed with a 9 point margin. Look at the voting returns and the only districts which were majority NO were those surrounding the Bay area ( a hotbed of liberalism not likely to be characterized as Wilson territory.) Wilson’s support for Prop. 209 (no racial quotas) won with a similar 9 point margin. Next up was Prop. 227 which prohibited bilingual education and that carried the day with a 22 point margin and despite these measures he left office with a 18% favorable over unfavorable spread in public opinion polls. The next Californian Republican nominee for Governor was on record as being opposed to Prop. 227 and lost by 20 points to Gray Davis (noticed the inverse relationship between support for Prop. 227 and the margin of loss for a Republican who was against that measure.) To argue that Wilson’s policies (specifically support for Prop. 187) destroyed the California Republicans one has to assume that the there was weird causality at work, for Prop. 187 was passed in 1994 and was instrumental to Wilson’s reelection and then was followed by Prop. 209 in 1996 and Prop. 227 in 1998, and they passed with flying colors which one would not expect if Prop. 187 in 1994 was the kiss of death.

    What destroyed the California Republican party was selective out-migration of conservatives from the state and what bolstered the California Democratic Party was selective in-migration of social liberals and immigrants. Because we live in an open system, the forces that led to the rise of the California Democratic party (migration patterns) also created the counterpoint of other states becoming more conservative. If the proportion of white Democratic Party voters in California has remained unchanged over the decades (please provide some evidence of this claim) then, I believe, that this result if due mostly to demographic changes making California a one-party state.

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  14. TangoMan says:

    Sam’s claim that “There was no great white flight from the [California] Democratic party” made me curious, so I checked.

    Quick and dirty factoids:

    -Once-majority whites are now a minority of the population in California – 43 percent compared to 69 percent in 1978 – but still dominate elections, representing 65 percent of the statewide electorate.

    The Public Policy Institute of California reports that 57% of Democrats are white compared to 82% of Republicans.

    As I suspected, the assertion was mathematically unsound. If white California Democrats always hovered around 57% of their party then that would mean that the non-white California Democrats always comprised about 43% of the party. In 1978, a mere 32 years ago, only 31% of the California population was non-white. We also know that whites are politically more active than non-whites, so to have the 1978 California Democratic Party be comprised of 43% non-whites would mean that non-whites were disproportionately politically active compared to whites of that era and there is simply no evidence for that having been the case.

    The conclusion, which is supported by data, is that the proportion of whites in the Democratic Party in California has been declining over the last 32 years. I see no reason that this process of decline will cease as the demographics continue to change in the future.

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  15. sam says:

    To argue that Wilson’s policies (specifically support for Prop. 187) destroyed the California Republicans one has to assume that the there was weird causality at work, for Prop. 187 was passed in 1994 and was instrumental to Wilson’s reelection and then was followed by Prop. 209 in 1996 and Prop. 227 in 1998, and they passed with flying colors which one would not expect if Prop. 187 in 1994 was the kiss of death.

    Not at all. I’m not arguing the the effect of 187 was instantaneous. Props 209 and 227 were initiatives, and I’m not sure that their passage would tell us much about the sequel to Prop 187, since it’s fair to suppose that same folks who voted for 187 voted for 209 and 227. As for conservative white outmigration and the fate of the Republican party in California, I would like to see your evidence for that, since I’m not heard that before.

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  16. sam says:

    If white California Democrats always hovered around 57% of their party then that would mean that the non-white California Democrats always comprised about 43% of the party. In 1978, a mere 32 years ago, only 31% of the California population was non-white. We also know that whites are politically more active than non-whites, so to have the 1978 California Democratic Party be comprised of 43% non-whites would mean that non-whites were disproportionately politically active compared to whites of that era and there is simply no evidence for that having been the case.

    I’m not sure what you showing there — that 43% had to be somebody. Who was it?

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  17. TangoMan says:

    I’m not sure what you showing there — that 43% had to be somebody. Who was it?

    What I’m getting at is that it’s highly unlikely that the California Democrats of 1978 had whites comprising only 57% of their party and that whites back then comprised a far higher proportion of the party. This means that, contrary to your assertion, the proportion of whites in the Democratic Party in California has been decreasing as a function of the decreasing proportion of whites in the California populace. Look, if this model is too confusing for you, simply extend it to both extreme ends of the demographic spectrum. How could whites comprise 57% of the California Democrats if the population is either 100% white or 0% white? Do you see the problem with your view of reality?

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  18. sam says:

    Do you see the problem with your view of reality? As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to. I read this article overnight, The Politics of Arizona’s Immigration Law, which presents your case more clearly, I think. The nut:

    The Democrats have held a large, steady registration advantage in the state for the better part of a century. …[T]he Democrats’ registration advantage doesn’t expand post-1994 (as we would expect if the mid-decade propositions had a massive negative effect on the GOP). In fact, the ratio of registered Republicans to registered Democrats in 2000 is within two-tenths of a point of where it was in 1994.

    This advantage has long manifested in statewide races. While the GOP frequently carried California at the Presidential level in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the Republicans have not won an outright majority of the State Senate since 1954, and have only won the State Assembly twice since then. As for statewide races, …[T]he GOP has not performed particularly well since 1994, but it is also true that, since 1954, the Republicans rarely won more than one of the four down ballot spots, save for the GOP landslide years of 1966 and 1994. [BTW, doesn't all this cut against your "outmigration of conservative whites" theory? The GOP was in a pre-asteroidal dinosaur state in California prior to the initiatives.]

    So, the thrust of the article, supported with graphs, etc., is that the GOP in California was moribund to begin with; the propositions in question had significant Hispanic support; and the ballot initiatives had no significant effect on presidential politics in California. I have to say, the argument is compelling.

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