There's nothing Mitt can say

The presumptive GOP nominee seems powerless to do anything about his Latino problem

Published June 26, 2012 11:42AM (EDT)

For the second time in just over a week, a major development on immigration policy left Mitt Romney essentially speechless on Monday.

The presumptive GOP nominee happened to be in Arizona when the Supreme Court struck down three key provisions of the state’s controversial “Papers, please” law and left a fourth hanging by a thread. But when the ruling was announced, Romney issued an intentionally vague statement, then spent the rest of the day ducking reporters, with his spokesman providing no further clarity. He did allow at a fund-raiser last night that “I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less,” but the day ended without Romney addressing the specifics of Arizona’s law or the court’s decision.

This was a replay of what happened when President Obama made a surprise announcement that he was making up to 800,000 law-abiding children of illegal immigrants eligible to apply for work permits that would prevent them from being deported. In a nationally televised interview taped the day after that move, Romney repeatedly (and awkwardly) avoided saying whether he would uphold Obama’s policy as president. Nor did he provide any clarity when he addressed a convention of Latino leaders a few days later. His position on Obama’s deportation order remains nonexistent.

And it’s starting to look like it will remain that way through the November election. When he emerged from the GOP primaries, Romney seemed acutely aware of the damage his hard-right immigration posturing had done to his standing with Latino voters (and, possibly, non-Latino swing voters who aren’t comfortable with anything that smacks of nativism) and appeared to have a remedy in mind: He’d endorse the watered down Dream Act that Sen. Marco Rubio was preparing, a proposal that had the potential to gain quick bipartisan traction.

But Obama’s order preempted Rubio, who now says he won’t be unveiling any legislation before the election, and denied Romney the path to the middle he’d been eyeing. This left Romney to choose from two unpalatable options: Oppose Obama’s new policy and risk worsening his own problem with Latinos and some swing voters; or support it and in so doing tacitly credit the president for a bold and meaningful act of leadership. Don’t endorse it, don’t oppose it, just ignore it.

Monday’s ruling again showed the bind Romney is in. During the primaries, he seemed to endorse Arizona’s law as a “model” for the nation, a smart move for a candidate who was desperately trying to find space to the right of his rivals. But that kind of rhetoric is problematic in a general election setting, which is why Romney’s campaign has suggested Romney was only referring to less controversial aspects of the law when he made his “model” comment. When Monday’s ruling came out, Romney apparently didn’t want to risk offending his party’s base by agreeing that the law is unconstitutional (and that the Obama Justice Department’s decision to contest it was correct), but was also mindful of the perils of fully embracing it. So he again opted to ignore the details.

It’s hard to see this dynamic changing for Romney in the next few months. With Rubio’s watered down Dream Act off the table, there’s no obvious “safe” way for him to create substantive daylight between himself and the anti-immigrant forces in his party. He’s clearly aware of the massive deficit he faces with Latino voters, but also understands that any attempt to cut into that deficit comes with the risk of a backlash from the GOP base. So the best he can do is walk the same fine line he walked on Monday, avoiding saying anything that might worsen his standing with either group. The main effect, of course, is to reinforce Romney’s image as excessively calculating and spineless.

The bigger question is when the dynamics within the Republican Party will change to allow a candidate like Romney to actually pursue Latino voters. Given the country’s demographic evolution, the GOP figures to eventually back off its hardline immigration posture, but it could take a long time. After all, for the average Republican member of Congress, signing off on any kind of comprehensive immigration reform law – the sort of legislation that might resolve the issue and take it off the table in future national elections – would mean encouraging a primary challenge from the right. For Republican office-holders, the threat of being branded ideologically impure is a major concern in the Tea Party-era.

That said, there is a school of thought that a loss at the presidential level this November will force Republicans to budge – especially if the margin is close enough that the party’s Latino problem can be considered the deciding factor. That might prompt just enough conservatives to change their tune that just enough Republicans in Congress feel safe working with Obama next year to enact real immigration reform.

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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