BOCA RATON, Fla. — Governors always say that what happens in the states is more important than the goings-on in Washington.
But these days, Republicans really emphasize the point. There is a growing sense on the right that modern trends and attitudes are shifting decisively in favor of local solutions to problems rather than top-down, command-and-control systems.
“I think we are on the verge of a return to federalism like you have never seen it in this country,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday, referring to the concept that states should be independent from the federal government.
And as GOP governors gathered here this week at the annual Republican Governors Association conference, they were savoring an impressive showing in the midterm elections, when they won in deep-blue Democratic states like Massachusetts and Maryland, held off tough challenges in Florida and Wisconsin, and increased the number of Republican governors from 29 to 31.
So it was with a particular irritation that the governors reacted against the intrusion of an unwelcome reality into their ebullient victory lap: President Barack Obama’s use of his formidable power as the country’s chief executive to shape the nation’s political debate.
Obama’s planned speech Thursday night announcing new executive action to extend amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. was nothing more than “a cynical attempt to change the topic,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“He just lost a big election,” Jindal said. Jindal, who is one of several Republican governors leaning toward running for president in 2016, said Obama didn’t want the nation to focus on his economic record or on the implementation of Obamacare.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said the president is “purposely trying to distract the media and in turn the American people from the issues that people elected us to focus in on: a balanced budget, a lower and more effective tax burden, a way to bring more jobs back to America to put more Americans back to work.”
Walker, seated on an elevated stage in a room full of reporters, said that “you all in the media act like this just came up yesterday.”
“You have fallen into the trap that the president of the United States has done,” Walker said, “to talk about an issue that’s probably not in the top 10 of most voters in America.”
The day before, Jindal had confronted NBC’s "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd, who moderated a panel of governors, for spending half of the hourlong conversation asking questions about Obama’s coming action on immigration. Perry and Walker followed that up with criticisms of their own.
And on Thursday, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who moderated a panel of governors himself, took his own shot at Todd.
“Since none of you have anything to do with it, I’m not going to ask you any questions about immigration,” Barbour told the governors onstage as he began the event. “I’m not on MSNBC’s payroll,” he said, associating Todd with the more liberal MSNBC, on which he sometimes appears, rather than NBC News, Todd’s actual employer.
After the panel discussion, Barbour grew red in the face as he explained his frustration with the media’s focus on immigration. Most of the questions at two separate press conferences, in addition to the panel moderated by Todd, were about Obama’s coming executive order.
“We hold this conference to celebrate our governors but also to talk about the policies and the performance that these governors have produced. And anything that takes a lot of time away from that really is a waste of our time. All these people came down here not to talk about federal policy but to talk about state policy,” Barbour fumed. “And to the degree that you try to make the whole thing about immigration is irksome.”
“To take up all the time talking about that is taking your eye off why we’re here. That’s what y’all want to talk about,” Barbour said to reporters assembled around him. “If y’all want to talk about it, go somewhere else.”
Most of the governors’ energy was focused on denouncing the president for raining on their parade and spoiling their thunder. There was not much talk about how to deal with the reality that, even if states are the place where policy experiments are best conducted, the modern presidency still holds enormous power to control the national conversation.
But if, as Walker suggested, the president is setting a trap, it is in large part to provoke the GOP to rage against him and create a perception among the nation’s growing Latino population that Republicans are against them as an ethnic bloc.
There was some discussion at the meeting of how Republicans should deal with this risk.
“Everybody that I’ve talked to,” Jindal said, “folks that are here illegally, after the border is secured, the American people will deal with them compassionately and fairly.”
Jindal talked of a “need to widen the gate” for people to emigrate to the U.S. “We need to make it easier for people to come here legally,” he said, arguing that currently it is easier to come illegally than legally.
Walker made a pointed comment about the need for Republicans in Congress — who now control both the House and the Senate — to do more than just oppose Obama.
“Leadership works in the states if our friends in Washington, on our side of the aisle, go to Washington and lead and have a positive agenda and are not just about obstructing this president,” Walker said.