What can Mitt say about immigration?

Speaking to a major Latino group today, Mitt Romney will have to make a choice about the Dream Act.

Published June 21, 2012 12:11PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney has three basic choices for the speech he will deliver to a conference of Latino leaders later today: He can break with his practice of never agreeing with President Obama on anything, ever; he can continue it and plant himself even more firmly on the right; or he can keep looking like a slippery politician who’s trying to have it both ways.

Romney is due to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando later today. It’s unclear what exactly he’ll say – reports indicate that he and his team were still working on the speech yesterday – but presumably he’ll lay out at least the broad framework of an immigration policy.

Romney is clearly aware of the general election damage he did to himself by striking such a hard-line immigration posture during the primaries. At this point, he’s on pace to do as poorly with Latino voters as John McCain, who lost among them by 36 points in 2008. There’s also the risk of alienating non-Latino swing voters who are uncomfortable with anything that smacks of nativism. A few weeks ago, a speech to NALEO probably looked like the perfect opportunity to the Romney campaign to execute a post-primary pivot back to the middle on immigration.

But with his decision last week to make up to 800,000 children of illegal immigrants eligible for work permits Obama deprived Romney of the path to the middle he seemed to be eying. Essentially, Obama implemented the watered down Dream Act that Marco Rubio had been hoping to introduce himself – and that Romney probably would have then endorsed. Since then, Romney has had nothing substantive to say about Obama’s action, or immigration in general, leading to a painfully awkward national television interview last weekend and an aborted campaign conference call yesterday.

This creates a problem for Romney today, because the question that Bob Schieffer asked him over and over on Sunday remains unanswered: If he’s elected president, will he allow Obama’s action to stand, or will he do away with it? No matter what he says in Orlando, his remarks figure to be judged on what – if any – light he sheds on this question.

Romney’s three options each come with pitfalls. He could simply offer a grudging acknowledgment that Obama’s policy is beneficial to deserving children, state that he won’t undo it, then lash out at Obama for going about it the wrong way and pledge to implement a long-term, comprehensive solution as president. This would seem like the safest option, although as his performance with Schieffer showed, Romney and his campaign seem to regard giving Obama credit for anything as a show of weakness. And in this case, there may be something to that; after all, Romney would be affirming the basic legitimacy of what Obama did and admitting that it helps people who need help.

Alternately, Romney could announce that he’d do away with the policy, arguing (perhaps) that it sets a destructive precedent because Obama went around Congress and framing it as an obstacle to the kind of long-term solution he wants. But no matter how he dresses it up, there’s really no way for Romney to call for undoing Obama’s order without reaffirming his place on the right in the immigration debate.

And then there’s the third option: Say nothing again, just like with Schieffer on Sunday. The line that Romney stuck to then was that Obama’s action would be irrelevant under a Romney presidency, because a congressionally approved solution would be implemented. But congressionally approved solutions to big problems take a lot of time to enact (with a good chance the process will break down along the way), which is why Schieffer continued to press Romney on what he’d do about Obama’s order. Romney’s attempts to duck it made for some pretty brutal clips, which fed the image of Romney as a particularly spineless politician. But maybe the Romney campaign figures that reinforcing that image is preferable to publicly agreeing with Obama or siding more clearly with the anti-immigration right.

Romney is sure to cover a lot of ground in his speech, and more than likely will spend the bulk of it decrying the devastating effects of “the Obama economy” on the Latino community. But there’s really only one thing reporters will be looking for: an answer to the question Romney has been ducking since last Friday.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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