Week In Politics: Immigration Reform, Calif. Budget

Melissa Block speaks with political commentators Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Center of Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles, and Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. They discuss the past week in politics from a West Coast perspective, including President Obama and Mitt Romney's appeals this week to Latino voters.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For our Friday political chat, we're doing something a little different this week. Instead of the usual suspects, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, I'm joined here at NPR West by two Southern California voices. First, representing the liberal side, Raphael Sonenshein. He's executive director of the Edmund G. Brown Center for Public Affairs at California State University. Raph, welcome.

RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN: My pleasure.

BLOCK: And on the conservative side, Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Dan, welcome to you.

DAN SCHNUR: Well, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And let's talk about these two speeches from the presidential candidates before the Latino leaders meeting there in Florida. We just heard some of what President Obama had to say today. And yesterday, his challenger, Mitt Romney, said the president has failed to live up to his promises on immigration reform. Let's take a listen.

MITT ROMNEY: He did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Nothing. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote.

BLOCK: Raph Sonenshein, let's start with you. Mitt Romney's message to Latino leaders there was your vote is being taken for granted, you deserve better. What do you think? Are Democrats taking Latino votes for granted?

SONENSHEIN: Actually, a couple of months ago, that would have been a very effective argument because Latino voters were feeling taken for granted. And until they began talking to Marco Rubio about his little DREAM Act, and then the president preempted it, the president was in real danger of that argument sticking. This speech was given a little bit late because now that the president has taken action, it highlights that he did try to get the DREAM Act through and it was blocked by Republicans. So timing is everything in this case.

BLOCK: Dan Schnur, what do you think? When you look at polls of Latino voters in key swing states - Arizona, Colorado, Nevada - President Obama leads Mitt Romney by commanding margins. Do you think that is the decisive factor - or at least a decisive factor - in November? Mitt Romney has talked about this being a Doomsday scenario for the Republicans.

SCHNUR: Well, for all the difficulties that Romney caused himself over the course of the Republican primary, he's made some pretty good progress in terms of making up ground with female voters. He's starting to make up some ground among younger voters. But the real, real obstacle for him going forward - and this week's dueling speeches framed the issue very, very nicely - is his ongoing challenge with Latino voters.

Romney doesn't need to win the Latino vote, which is good because he can't. But he does need to pull one-third or slightly more of Latino support in this election in order to get elected president. Melissa, I'll say this really quickly. I don't know that either one of the two candidates exactly covered themselves with glory this week. Romney missed, to me, what I think was an excellent opportunity to grab the lifeline that Marco Rubio threw him a couple weeks ago with his own version of the DREAM Act.

And Obama, while coming out with a temporary executive order last week and doing himself some great short-term political good, he used a phrase today when he was talking about how willing he was to work that it struck me as very odd. He said: My door's been open for three and a half years. And that's a fairly passive thing for a president to say. He hasn't said: My door's been open for three and a half years on health care, on energy, on stimulus.

But this I'm-waiting-for-someone-to-come-to-me approach on immigration got him through the speech, but it lays bare the question that once you've put aside the Band-aid of the DREAM Act, what is either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama going to do with the much larger challenge of 11.5 million people who are in this country without proper documentation.

BLOCK: And Raph, let's talk briefly about that, because do you think that President Obama missed an opportunity there to use the bully pulpit to be more proactive? And did that seem, as Dan is saying, too passive a statement?

SONENSHEIN: Well, anybody who's watched the first few years of the Obama administration would find it pretty hard to argue that he hasn't tried to reach out to the other side and gotten his hand slapped again and again, to the point where it was, in fact, almost embarrassing and demoralizing to the Democratic Party and to many independent voters.

At a certain point, with the economy not getting better, he really has no choice but to fight his way out of the box he's in. And I think with this decision, which was probably the best he could get, he's finally saying: I know for people who support me and whose support I want, I have to make a difference in their lives, and I just did something that made a difference in 800,000 to a million people's lives that really matters.

BLOCK: Latino voters are a substantial factor to consider here in California in the congressional races. There are new congressional districts that have been drawn, speculation about how much of a net gain there might be in Democratic seats in the House from California and if that could, in fact, tip the balance in the House back to the Democrats. Dan Schnur, any chance of that, do you think?

SCHNUR: It's looking less likely as a result of our primary early this month. Just to give your listeners from outside of California, Melissa, a little bit of a historical perspective on how badly gerrymandered our congressional districts have been in the previous decade, there are 53 congressional districts in California; that means there have been 265 elections held in this state for Congress over the last 10 years.

In 264 out of those 265 elections, the party that went into the election holding power came out of the election holding power. There was exactly one seat that turned over. For reasons that we probably don't have time to get into today, Democrats probably are not going to realize as many gains in the state this fall as they'd originally hoped. But far more importantly for California voters at least is that we end up with a much larger number of competitive races.

That's not only good for voters on Election Day, that's good for our delegation and for Congress come next January.

BLOCK: And Raphael Sonenshein, there's a new rule here in California, the top two primary - why don't you walk us through how that works and what the effect might be.

SONENSHEIN: Yeah, good luck with this one. The new rule that was enacted in 2010 is that in the primary, everybody runs, and only the top two candidates make it into the runoff. Even if one candidate gets 99 percent of the vote, the top two runoff.

This really bollixed-up Democrats because there were six seats they thought they had a chance for, and they managed in one congressional seat to not get a Democrat into the finals, so there's two Republicans running. They didn't get their favorite Democrat into another seat. So there's sort of two out of the six already not looking good.

Everyone is completely confused. There's members of - mostly Democrats running against each other in November, which is going to take money from the presidential race.

BLOCK: Like the Sherman-Berman race.

SONENSHEIN: They call it the Ermans, and there's many other names, the Sherman-Berman race. It's going to be very confusing. In the long run, the hope is that more non-aligned moderate candidates will get elected. Let's hope that happens.

BLOCK: All right, well, listen, thanks to you both for coming in. Raphael Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. Brown Center of Public Affairs at California State University; and Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Thanks to you both.

SCHNUR: Thank you.

SONENSHEIN: My pleasure.

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