Romney leads from behind on immigration

Quietly, Romney answers a simple immigration question he’s been avoiding for months

By Steve Kornacki

Published October 2, 2012 12:17PM (EDT)

It took three-and-a-half months, but Mitt Romney has finally answered a very simple question: If you’re elected president, will you honor the executive order that Barack Obama issued granting legal status to potentially more than a million children of illegal immigrants?

“The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid,” Romney told the Denver Post in an interview that was published late Monday night. “I’m not going to take something that they’ve purchased.”

This may seem like a rather obvious position to take, especially when you consider that the opposite view would involve revoking the legal status of children and possibly subjecting them to deportation. But Romney has – very awkwardly – tried to sidestep the entire question since mid-June, when Obama surprised the political world with his executive order.

In the immediate wake of Obama’s announcement, CBS’s normally agreeable Bob Schieffer tried and failed four times in one interview to elicit a “yes” or “no” from Romney on the question of whether he’d repeal Obama’s order. Romney would only say that he favored working with Congress to craft a comprehensive legislative solution that would address the legal status of children and everyone else here unlawfully.

Of course, legislation of that magnitude would probably take months – at least -- to make its way through Congress and to a President Romney’s desk, and that’s assuming it wouldn’t die in the House or Senate. But Romney steadfastly refused to say whether he’d leave the executive order in place while that process played out.

A similar scene played out a few weeks ago, when Romney participated in a forum sponsored by Univision. Asked once again whether he’d repeal Obama’s executive order, the GOP nominee insisted he didn’t favor mass deportations but wouldn’t provide a direct answer.

But now, barely a month before Election Day and on the eve of his first debate with Obama, Romney has finally provided some clarity. This entire saga from June until now is in many ways a perfect illustration of the political struggle Romney has faced since securing the GOP nomination.

One of Romney’s problems involves the power Obama has at his disposal. It’s customary for a candidate to cater to his or her base during the primaries, then adopt a more moderate posture for the fall. And when Romney finally put away Rick Santorum this spring, it looked like he was planning to use immigration – an issue on which he’d moved about as far right as possible during the primaries – to make his pivot.

Marco Rubio, Florida’s Republican senator, was making noise about creating his own watered down Dream Act, one that would spare law-abiding children of illegal immigrants deportation without offering them a path to citizenship. Romney telegraphed his intention to endorse the plan once Rubio formally unveiled it, and immigration groups began sending signals that they’d line up behind it, too. It was beginning to look like Romney would pull off something of a coup – creating the appearance of genuine leadership while repairing some of the damage done by his primary season antics to his standing with Latinos, and swing  voters in general.

But then Obama swooped in with his executive order, essentially implementing what Rubio was going to propose. The move completely stole Romney’s thunder, denied him the path to the middle he’d been eyeing, and left him with three choices: (1) support Obama’s move and thereby give the president credit for something; (2) vow to repeal the order – and, by extension, threaten hundreds of thousands of children with deportation; or (3) try to have it both ways by blasting Obama in broad terms and ignoring the executive order.

Romney went with the third choice, which illustrates another problem he’s faced: a GOP base that has continually forced him to choose between articulating its politically toxic worldview and spouting politically inoffensive gobbledygook.

The Republican Party has moved far to the right in the Obama-era, and its primary voters have demanded a new level of ideological zeal from GOP candidates. Related to this, the GOP base has also demanded absolute, unwavering opposition to just about every major policy Obama has proposed and action he has taken. On immigration, this has put Romney in a particularly awful spot. To run on the ideas he embraced during the primaries would seriously harm Romney with swing voters. But to move away from those views risks inciting a backlash among the Republican voters Romney is relying on to turn out in droves this fall.

He had a narrow opening, it seemed, but once Obama seized it, Romney had nowhere to go on immigration, and pretty much nothing to say. His belated admission now that he wouldn’t repeal the executive order hardly feels like a bold stroke of leadership. It’s a faint echo.

I wrote about a similar phenomenon with Romney and healthcare last week, when he seemed to take pride – momentarily – in the Massachusetts law he enacted in 2006. Obama stole Romney’s thunder on that one, too, using RomneyCare as the blueprint for the ACA, thereby rendering what had been a Republican policy idea off-limits to any Republican candidate running for any office in America. This is why I’ve argued that Romney’s struggles as a general election candidate aren’t really his fault. He’s representing a party that’s made it almost impossible for him to appeal to swing voters.

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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