Ruling Fallout

Immigration Could Sink Mitt Romney Regardless of Supreme Court Rulings

The Supreme Court’s pending health-care ruling matters. But it’s immigration that could translate into ‘Adios, Mitt’ in November, says Robert Shrum.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

There’s a day in June that could determine the outcome in November—but not necessarily the one you’d think if you swallowed whole the headlines dominating the news.

The Supreme Court’s verdict on the Affordable Care Act (whether constitutionally addled or surprisingly tempered and judicially restrained) will be something of a turning point when it comes. But ultimately, it is Mitt Romney’s slick and empty maneuvering on immigration reform that is more critical to the presidential contest.

We’ll know by the end of the week the court’s ruling on Obama’s signature, once-in-a-century success in moving toward health care as a fundamental right. Overturning the law would be a moral disgrace and a personal tragedy—a Bush v. Gore–like abuse of power in shredding coverage for millions of Americans.

Politically, however, the story almost certainly diverges from the herd consensus. For Barack Obama, a loss in the Supreme Court would diminish his legacy, but not his prospects in 2012. Striking down either the individual mandate or the entire statute—including provisions that outlaw lifetime limits on coverage and denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions and that let young people stay on their parents’ insurance policies—would trigger a fierce backlash from those who rely on such basic protections.

Many of them don’t realize yet what is at stake here. But they will rally to Obama if it happens; indeed, there’s likely nothing that could do more to energize the president’s 2008 base among younger voters and all the others who would lose coverage. They may not be able to do anything about the court. But they can and will turn on Romney and the Republicans whose fierce enmity to health reform makes them the poster targets for electoral retaliation.

Romney and Co. will also have to face the question to which they have no convincing answer: What is the GOP’s plan? For two years, the party of “no” has been able to say without any specifics that they intend to repeal and replace the law. You can bet that any concoction they suddenly cobble together will favor the insurance industry at the expense of consumers and let costs soar to those who already have coverage.

The Obama campaign will prosecute a narrative that ties Romney’s faux proposal to the scheme of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to end Medicare as we know it and toss seniors vouchers to negotiate with insurance companies—which would raise their out-of-pocket costs by as much as $6,400 a year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey, 65 percent opposed the Romney/Ryan plan.

This will give the president a thematically cohesive appeal to two constituencies that seldom trend the same way—the old who fear losing their Medicare guarantee and the young who are gaining so much from Obamacare.

Nor would a decision by the court to sustain the law accord the GOP the presumed advantage of campaigning against an “unpopular” health law. Lately, except for the fired-up fringe, Romney and congressional Republicans haven’t been pushing the issue. You can understand why when you look at the new Bloomberg poll, which finally phrased the choices and reported the results in a way that reflects the more nuanced contours of public opinion: “A plurality of Americans, 43 percent, say they want to retain the 2011 law with only small modifications while 15 percent say the measure should be left alone … [Just] one-third say it should be repealed.”

The court would defy the public will by striking down the law while distorting and dishonoring the Constitution. It also would tilt the political ground toward Barack Obama and the Democrats. And by staying its hand, the court would clearly leave the president in the unexpected position of holding the high ground on health care—vindication for his landmark achievement, with sufficient public approbation for the law that Republicans won’t dare to deploy it as a cutting-edge issue.

So listen to Romney on the trail and then at his convention as he avoids health care, other than a required and ritualistic opposition to Obamacare. Once in a while, he asserts briefly that he will do something positive. But it’s vague and token, small ball spun to sound bigger than it is. Romney calculates, correctly, that it doesn’t help him to fully engage in this debate. This is Obama’s high ground.

What hurts Romney even more is his transparently phony makeover on immigration. Last week, he refused to say whether he would repeal Obama’s executive action to stop the deportation of young people brought here as children and to grant them work permits if they serve in the armed forces, graduate from high school, or earn a GED. Then, over the weekend, Mitt traveled to a national gathering of Latino officials in Florida and, in a speech much ballyhooed in advance, spent thousands of words to offer up … a studied nonposition.

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In my previous column, I observed that post-primary, Romney is doing a Dewey, imitating the vacuous, bromide-laden rhetoric of the 1948 Republican nominee in a relentless effort to cast the election simply as a referendum on the incumbent. And in his self-retooling on immigration, Romney once again executed a perfect Dewey. He dismissed the president’s new policy as “a stop-gap measure” and said he would “put in place my own long-term solution.” What is it? He didn’t utter a single phrase to describe it—other than to pledge that he would “work with Republicans and Democrats.”

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times used the same terms to describe Romney’s modified limited flip-flop: he was “soften(ing)” his “tone” on immigration. That puts it politely. He was actually soft as mush, straining to mollify Hispanics without roiling his own nativist base. Does he really believe that anyone, especially Hispanics, will credit the notion that real reform will ever win the support of a Republican Party that forced an imperiled John McCain to abandon the effort and instead shamefully promise to “build the danged fence”? Or that reform could ever be signed into law by a candidate who has promised to “veto” the DREAM Act? That would be Mitt Romney.

Amid the fog of Romney’s generalities, he let slip, at least by implication, that he was for even less than the president has already accomplished. The Republican nominee-to-be allowed that he would favor opening up citizenship to undocumented immigrants who joined the armed forces. That would cover 30,000 of the 800,000 young people who will benefit from the Obama plan. What would Romney do with the rest after trashing Obama’s stopgap measure? They would be left in limbo, without work papers and subject to deportation. Or maybe Romney would let or force them to “self-deport”—the course he advocated during the primaries.

Amid a lukewarm reception from his Hispanic audience, Romney retreated to two other tacks that are equally unlikely to sway Hispanic voters. He did specify a few changes—which apply only to legal immigrants and which are glaringly beside the main point. And he pounded away at the economy, the heart of his referendum strategy, berating Obama for the 11 percent unemployment rate among Latinos. Does he hope they have forgotten the man he never mentions—George W. Bush? Does he condescendingly expect that even if his economic sleight-of-hand gains more traction than it has today, it would trump the foul anti-Hispanic character of today’s GOP? Doesn’t he realize that this is the lens through which Latinos see his party?

And Romney is no bystander in this; he has fellow-traveled with the demagoguery and the demagogues, praising Arizona’s draconian immigration law and cozying up to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the “birther” conspiracy-monger who has been assailed by the Justice Department for running an office with “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.” The Obama campaign and its Democratic allies will remind Hispanic voters of Mitt’s expedient extremism and his grudging evasions on immigration in waves of television advertising from now until November.

The president himself drew the contrast when he appeared the day after Romney at the same Latino convention, albeit to a decidedly warmer welcome. On the economy, Obama pointed out that the same Republicans who are blocking immigration reform are stonewalling every bill for job creation. He described his executive action on young immigrants as “the right thing to do” and highlighted Romney’s professed hostility to the DREAM Act: “We should just take him at his word.”

The president paused and added: “I’m just saying ...” The audience laughed. Hispanics get it. Mitt’s cosmetic remake won’t take and neither will his economic feint. Every day, Latinos are living the reality of prejudice and the job situation—and they overwhelmingly support the president: he’s trouncing Romney 61 percent to 27 percent—and in the swing states he’s at 63 percent. As improbable as it seems, the president is only 3 points behind in Arizona—a result driven largely by Latinos.

In that speech at the end of last week, Romney could have had his Sister Souljah moment. He could have endorsed the Obama move on young immigrants, and said that he knew there were those in his own party who disagreed but that he was convinced it was the right thing to do. But he’s too fearful of his own right wing. So rather than a genuine softening on immigration, he performed a soft-shoe song and dance signifying nothing much except his own ambition.

In the final analysis, whatever the short-term fallout, I’m convinced the Supreme Court decision on health reform will strengthen Obama to one degree or another. For 2012, however, immigration and the Hispanic vote will be more consequential. A Republican candidate needs about 40 percent of that vote for a chance to win the White House. Romney’s nowhere near that—and he didn’t get any closer over the weekend.

Linda Chavez, who switched to the GOP during the Reagan years, served in the Reagan White House and later ran for the Senate in Maryland, offered Mitt some friendly advice inThe New York Times: “Romney’s best bet is to embrace the DREAM Act ... If he doesn’t, he could lose not only the overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters but also the election.”

On a day in June, Romney spurned that advice. Come November, we very well may look back on that day as the time when the die was cast—when it was settled that on Election Day, Hispanic Americans would be decisive in America’s decision to say: “Adios, Mitt.”