Michael Tomasky on Mitt Romney’s Doomed Immigration Gambit
It’s Mitt’s Etch a Sketch moment on immigration. Too bad he’s too white to pull it off.
It seems clear that the main issue Mitt Romney is going to use to try to reestablish himself as a moderate is immigration. He told a private audience on April 15 that "we have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party" and warned that current polling "spells doom for us." Then, on Monday, he made himself available to the media for the first time in a month—while standing beside Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a leading veepstakes name. Can Romney, who staked out an immigration position during the primaries that left him sounding like Pat Buchanan, really pull this off? My bet: He’ll be smooth, he’ll do almost everything right, he’ll say all the right things—and he’ll end up with something very much like the 31 percent of the Latino vote John McCain got, maybe two or three points more, tops. The reason is simple: Romney, like his party, is just too white.
But before we get to art, let’s start with science—the polls. Obama leads Romney among Latinos by around 40 points, maybe more. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey said 69 to 22 percent. How does Romney need to perform among Latinos? I have no idea, actually. Republicans speak wistfully of the 42 percent of that vote George W. Bush received in 2004, so they must think of it as some kind of holy grail. Bush got elected in 2004, so apparently that’s some sort of benchmark for them. Certainly, even 37 or maybe 35 percent of the Latino vote in the Mountain West for Romney would make the Obama team revert to Plan B or C as concerns Colorado and New Mexico (nationally, Latinos made up 9 percent of the overall vote in 2008; that will be up to 11 or 12 percent this year). So Romney needs to gain around 15 points—or, put another and more daunting way, he needs to improve on his present performance by 37 percent (i.e., going from 22 to 35 percent would be a 37 percent improvement).
Is that remotely possible? What would he do? Well, start with the most obvious move, picking Rubio as vice-president. Huge media buzz, of course. All manner of breathless predictions on the Sunday shows about how this changes everything—potential first Latino president, complete paradigm shift, all the rest.
One problem. There is no signal, at least yet, that Rubio would make a whit of difference. Last weekend, a poll came out in which 1,000-plus Latinos were asked about Obama-Biden matchups against Romney-Rubio, and Romney paired with various other Hispanic Republicans—including Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico (who has said she will not accept the job) and Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada. They made no difference, the poll found. In fact, in Florida, Obama did better among Latinos against Romney with Rubio on the ticket, suggesting that maybe to know him isn’t to love him.
Now we move on to substance, or at least to symbol-substance. At that same April 15 private event mentioned above, Romney said that as president he would pass a GOP version of the DREAM Act. This is exactly what Rubio has spent this week touting. Unlike the Democratic DREAM Act, it wouldn’t include a possible path to citizenship, just to green-card status. Latino groups hate it, and it does seem like an empty-calorie kind of bill, I have to say. It’s true that there are millions of permanent residents living in the United States now—about 1.1 million green cards are granted each year. But all of these people do have a future shot at citizenship, so at least they can all dream of being citizens one day, whereas under the Rubio bill, those who win such status can’t.
This is pretty small potatoes compared to what Bush supported. Remember, he was in favor of Teddy Kennedy’s immigration bill! He put a respectable amount of political capital into it, until the shitstorm hit and he backed down. Bush took what people could see was a bit of a risk. A non-citizenship DREAM Act compares to serious and comprehensive immigration reform in about the way Plessy v. Ferguson compares to Brown v. Board of Education.
And finally—art. Art is so underestimated in politics. Romney is just sooooo white. Even whiter than the Osmonds. Bush wasn’t that white. He came from a state where these days you can’t help but know some Latinos, and he spoke him a little esspanyole, even. But Romney? He fired some guys working on his lawn because he couldn’t afford the political liability of employing them, as he openly admitted at one of those GOP debates. Aside from that—well, I admit I’m no more up on the latest salsa artists than Mitt is, but do you think that guy has ever listened to one Tito Puente record in his life? Has he ever known a Latino person, outside of those who clean his houses and trim his lawns? It’s quite possible that he does. But he sure doesn’t look like he does.
Romney, therefore, will make some moves that will impress the largely white commentariat, and he’ll bump up a little among certain high-income Latino demographics. But average Latino voters, men and women who work really hard every day for white bosses, are just going to find that he reminds them too much of the guy who docks their pay when the bus comes late. And they won’t be wrong—he basically is that guy. There’s no overcoming that. He’s a 31 percenter at best.