In two weeks of news cycles dominated by immigration news, Mitt Romney’s campaign has managed to say almost nothing about immigration. First there was Obama’s surprise announcement on a new deportation policy to spare 800,000 undocumented young people, then there was the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday on Arizona’s immigration law, but Romney’s response to both followed the same basic pattern -- avoid substance, slam Obama, call for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform. This inevitably fails to appease the press, and as reporters demand more answers, the campaign offered only more muddle.
Romney’s first response to the court's ruling yesterday came in a statement sent to reporters in the morning. "This represents yet another broken promise by this President," Romney said. "I believe that each state has the duty -- and the right -- to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities. As Candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But 4 years later, we are still waiting."
That left it entirely unclear if Romney actually supported the law or not, so reporters pressed for more. By 11:00, Romney aides said the candidate “has no further comment -- and will not comment in person.” The aide said Romney "has been pretty clear on his stance on immigration.”
At 12:45, reporters tried again, this time pressing Romney traveling press secretary Rick Gorka for more on the campaign plane. For an excruciating seven minutes and 22 questions, Gorka impressively avoided saying anything. The questions all tried to divine whether Romney supported Arizona’s immigration law, which he had called a "model" in the past, but Gorka alternated between only two responses: One, that states have the right to do what Arizona did (but not that they should), and two, that Obama had failed to lead on immigration. "The governor supports the states' rights to do this,” Gorka said. But does he support the substance of the law? "The governor supports the right of states.” Those were just the first few questions. “That's all we're going to say on this issue,” Gorka explained.
At around 5:00, Romney himself offered a bit more on the issue, despite his spokesperson saying earlier that the candidate would not address the issue. Speaking at a closed-door fundraiser, Romney still refrained from saying if he supports Arizona’s law, but criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling for being too hard on the state. "I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states not less. And there are states now under this decision that have less authority, less latitude to enforce immigration laws," Romney said.
This followed the same strategy Romney followed last week in the wake of Obama’s deportation ruling. His first response came on CBS’ "Face the Nation," in which he refused to say whether he would repeal Obama’s policy, despite being pressed five times. The next day, aides were equally evasive. As pressure built on the campaign for answers over the next few days, aides said Romney would clear everything up in a speech to Hispanic political leaders later that week. Last Thursday, the speech came, but not answers. “Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive action. The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure,” he said, ignoring the fact that the second question doesn’t answer the first.
Why Romney has avoided specifics is clear -- he's trapped. As Steve Kornacki noted, there’s really nothing he can say that won’t alienate his Republican base on one hand, or Latino voters on the other hand. But there’s a big difference between the two cases. Obama’s announcement likely caught the campaign off guard, as it was a surprise move and it took away Romney’s immigration escape hatch. But the Supreme Court’s decision was eminently foreseeable and the campaign should have been more prepared for it.
It’s also worth noting that Romney’s most specific comments came in a closed-door fundraiser. There’s a bit of a pattern here. Romney tends to be evasive about not just immigration, but virtually every policy area -- until he gets into a private room with donors. While he hasn’t specified in public how he’d trim the federal government, at a private fundraiser in Florida in April, Romney detailed how he would cut the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development.