The politics of suing Arizona

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Post asked political experts and commentators about the implications of the Obama administration's suit against Arizona and its new immigration law. Below are responses from Dan Schnur, Douglas E. Schoen, Tony Fratto, Frank Sharry, Martin Frost, Donna Brazile and Ed Rogers.

DAN SCHNUR

Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

The Obama administration's lawsuit draws a stark political line in the debate over border security, and it puts the president squarely at odds with public opinion. But the White House doesn't need to worry about swing voters -- at least not for two more years. The president's advisers have made it clear that their best bet for success this fall is to motivate youth and minority communities, precisely the sectors of the electorate most likely to oppose the Arizona law. Those are voters that the Democrats need to turn out in November to maintain their congressional majorities.

The downside for Democratic incumbents in competitive races is that this base-turnout strategy assumes that many of them will be former members of Congress by January, unless they can find a way to reach out to the political center without much assistance from the White House. Opposing the administration's lawsuit is an excellent way to accomplish that task. But while strong majorities of voters support the Arizona law, they also tend to support the dormant Obama/Bush/McCain/Kennedy approach that provides an opportunity for illegal immigrants to eventually achieve citizenship. Candidates in both parties should remember that for most swing voters, border security is only half of the answer.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The Obama administration's lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law is very bad news for the Democrats' short-term political interests. Polls show that the Arizona initiative is popular nationally and is viewed even more positively in swing states and swing districts, a number of which are in the South and Southwest; particularly in swing states, the lawsuit will motivate a center-right constituency that is increasingly wary of immigrants to turn out and register their opposition to this action.

Still, even with the rising likelihood of a GOP takeover of the House and Senate this November, the lawsuit could be a net positive for the Democrats in 2012 and beyond. With the Hispanic vote making a critical difference in such key swing states as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida, a prolonged fight over this measure and immigration reform will almost certainly mobilize a key constituency in 2012 that President Obama needs to get reelected. This is the same constituency that moved back in the Democrats' direction in 2008 after a brief flirtation with George W. Bush and the Republicans.

TONY FRATTO

Deputy assistant to the president and deputy press secretary from September 2006 to January 2009

We say in Washington that no one wins when it comes to doing something about immigration. So no one does anything. But then everyone loses. Although President Obama has clearly chosen to use this issue as a political cudgel rather than leading and doing the hard work to achieve a consensus, in the long run Republicans will lose politically if they fail to engage in a positive and serious way.

Fearing the wrath of a vocal minority, my party is at risk of making a historic mistake, allowing it to be branded as the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino party. In this election cycle, in discreet, localized races, some Republicans will fare well for their hands-off approach to immigration and general support for the Arizona law. But those will be pyrrhic victories over time if they establish in the minds of new Americans that the GOP is hostile to their presence on our shores.

Robust immigration benefits this nation in economic and cultural ways that I believe are natural to my party's view of what America represents. And they are benefits a more confident and courageous party would champion.

FRANK SHARRY

Executive director of America's Voice

Democrats should make the inevitable election-year fight over illegal immigration about comprehensive immigration reform -- not just about the Arizona law or lawsuit. They should lean into the debate rather than run from it, calling out Republicans for blocking a solution that strengthens border security, turns off the jobs magnet and makes sure the immigrants here are legal taxpayers.

But isn't this a racially charged and controversial issue? Yes, and as such it's one that distinguishes problem-solvers from demagogues. In-depth research -- which probes beyond the top lines of flash polls -- reveals that stating strong support for a tough and practical comprehensive reform package connects powerfully with swing voters.

Swing voters are sick of politics as usual. Most are not angry at immigrants here illegally; they are angry at Congress for not solving the problem. Most favor the Arizona law because, finally, somebody is doing something about an issue that has come to symbolize Washington's impotence. But they much prefer a national solution that will end illegal immigration once and for all. And they strongly prefer candidates who take on tough issues, speak up forcefully and propose realistic solutions.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

Clearly the Obama administration did the right thing in bringing this lawsuit. We cannot have a situation in which each state passes its own immigration statute. This issue should be the exclusive province of the federal government. Having said that, Congress must have the guts to pass something after November. If it continues to fail to act, the courts may eventually let states proceed. But Congress should be given the opportunity to legislate first, perhaps with a deadline established by the courts.

All of this is good political science and constitutional law. As for the lawsuit's effects on Democrats, it's every man and woman for themselves. Border-state Democrats cannot be expected to fall on their swords on constitutional theory involving such an emotional issue. Those Democrats who want to take a principled stand should do so. The rest should avoid this political time bomb.

Once I clerked for a federal judge in Texas who was about to integrate a school district. She called the school officials into her chambers, asked their confidential advice on how best to integrate the schools and told them they were free to criticize her decision once it was public. They actually provided some valuable help to her in fashioning her final order -- and then blasted the hell out of it to the media. The judge was fine with that. I suspect that administration officials will understand the politics of this situation and not get too upset about Democrats who denounce them.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

The White House-directed lawsuit is a mistake and will hurt Democrats in November.

In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay. Arizona has a bumper sticker that is compelling and clear. It says, "Do something about illegal immigration, now!" The Obama administration, on the other hand, offers a long-winded essay that only professors could love.

The real problem for the Democrats is that they are not really for anything that limits people from entering the United States illegally. They engage in lip service and create distractions to keep from taking any real action to stop the flow, even as the economy sputters and there aren't enough jobs to go round for Americans.

Presumably, the White House has made the calculation that the lawsuit would drive up voter turnout among those who do not want to inhibit illegal immigration more than it would energize the angry victims of illegal immigration. That math does not add up.

President Obama has cerebral gifts but a tin ear for this and other issues. But the results in November will be so loud that even he will hear them.

DONNA BRAZILE

Author and political commentator; manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign

The basis for the federal suit is likely to be lost in the media's echoing yelps, so let's clarify it: Article 6, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution says that the laws of the United States "shall be the supreme law of the land." That means that if there's a conflict, federal law trumps state law. At issue here: Does Arizona's immigration law -- which makes it a trespassing crime to be undocumented in Arizona -- "stand as an obstacle to the . . . purposes and objectives of Congress," which has enacted and is in the process of revising federal immigration laws?

Simply put, immigration is the jurisdiction of the federal government, not state governments.

The law is punitive and blatantly unfair. What does an "illegal immigrant" look like? It panders to partisan-generated hysteria. But for Democrats to gain politically, assuming the law is overturned by the courts, they'll have to address the values underlying the immigration issue, among them jobs and just access to "the system," such as bank accounts and driver's licenses. All the right does in claiming that "illegals from Mexico" threaten "American values" is feed the anger, and feed off the fear, of the ignorant here at home.


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