When Gov. Jan Brewer and President Obama sat down at the White House June 3, both sides looked forward to a frank discussion about Arizona’s harsh new anti-illegal immigration laws, while simultaneously hoping to calm tempers that have flared after the bill passed.
Brewer, engaged in a tough intra-party battle for the gubernatorial nomination this year, has been defiant in her promises to defend the new law from federal officials, going so far as to insist a hand-picked legal team represents the state rather than Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard. Obama, on the other hand, has expressed opposition to the bill, going so far as to criticize it while standing next to Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Outside groups have either praised Arizona’s forward thinking, with Republicans embracing the state’s efforts to get its border under control, or slammed the legislation as backward or racist and promised boycotts. Several cities have cut some ties to the Copper State, and Phoenix could lose up to $90 million in revenue from relocated conventions, Mayor Phil Gordon said last month.
With temperatures running high, Obama and Brewer met on a muggy Washington afternoon five months before the midterm elections, with the president especially bent on cooling the mood, said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
“To the extent that opposing the Arizona law was a political tactic, it has backfired badly. Every national poll shows that Americans strongly support the measure,” Pitney said. “The issue has the potential to hurt Democratic congressional candidates in the fall, and the president needs to reduce its potency.”
Brewer requested the meeting for Wednesday, when President Obama was in Pittsburgh addressing the ongoing economic recovery effort. She told CNN on Tuesday no meeting had been scheduled, which prompted conservative backlash. The White House quickly made room in Obama’s schedule for Thursday.
That, some GOP strategists said, gives Brewer an advantage, especially in her primary race against her two other competitive Republican candidates.
“By not meeting with her at first and then caving in to one later, President Obama gives Gov. Brewer a big win and even more credibility on border security,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who served as a top spokesman for both former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “Had he simply met with her in the first place, it would have not risen to this level. With more Americans approving of the Arizona immigration law, a meeting with Brewer sends the signal that Obama must listen even if he disagrees with it.”
“Brewer is trying to show that she is reaching out and trying to solve an important problem for her state,” Pitney added. “She and her state are under attack and she needs to blunt the criticism by demonstrating that she is reasonable and statesmanlike.”
Indeed, party strategists on both sides said the immigration issue is difficult for their party. Most credit, or blame, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces a tough re-election fight, for bringing the issue up this year. Some believe that by raising the specter of immigration reform, Reid’s electoral chances improve, especially as Hispanic voters pay more attention to his race.
Now, even though major legislation on the federal level is highly unlikely before the midterm elections, both parties have to talk about the subject on the campaign trail.
“Immigration is a tricky issue for both Democrats and Republicans,” said John Anzalone, a Birmingham, Ala.-based pollster who worked for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “The Republicans want to use it as a wedge issue, which does make it difficult for (Democrats) to solve the problem.”
Added one top Republican pollster, who asked not to be identified discussing a subject that still divides factions of the GOP: “Polls are clear – voters want the law enforced, and they support the steps Arizona is taking. There is not much sympathy for illegal immigrants in good times, and there is even less sympathy in hard times.”
Still, the White House made it clear the conversation on Thursday was more than just a one-way street. Brewer laid out her concerns, but Obama made sure to point out progress his administration has made in its first year and a half, according to a White House official with knowledge of the confab.
-Reid Wilson is the editor of Washington D.C.-based Hotline On Call