Achilles Heel

Mitt Romney’s Achilles Heel: Immigration

Mitt’s tepid response to the Supreme Court’s Arizona ruling is a stark reminder of one of his most damning political weaknesses. Andrew Romano on how Romney went off track.

Evan Vucci / AP Photo

A cyborg couldn’t have said it better.

On Monday afternoon, a few hours after the Supreme Court eviscerated Arizona’s controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070, by unanimously overturning three of its provisions and insisting that the fourth not be implemented in a discriminatory manner, Mitt Romney’s traveling spokesrobot, Rick Gorka, was wheeled out to field some questions from reporters. Unfortunately for him, they only had one: “Does [Romney] support the law as it was drafted in Arizona?”

"The governor supports the right of states,” Gorka said. “That's all we're going to say on this issue."

Noticing that Gorka had not, in fact, answered the question, another reporter chimed in: “Does he have a position on the law, or no position?”

"The governor has his own immigration policy that he laid out in Orlando and in the primary, which he would implement as president which would address this issue,” Gorka said. “Whereas Obama has had four years in the office and has yet to address it in a meaningful way."

But does the governor have a position on the Arizona law besides supporting the rights of states?

"This debate is sprung from the president failing to address this issue, so each state is left and has the power to draft and enact their own immigration policy."

But the Arizona law does very specific things, does the governor support those things that the Arizona law does?

"We've addressed this."

Seven minutes and 16 versions of the same question later, the Gorkabot still hadn’t uttered a word about his boss’s actual thoughts on S.B. 1070. His programming simply wouldn’t permit any deviation from Boston’s vague, irrelevant script.

Barack Obama should be vulnerable on immigration. There is no other issue--not even health care or unemployment--that is more important to the Hispanic-American community. There is also no other issue on which President Obama has contradicted Candidate Obama quite so blatantly. In an interview with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos on May 28, 2008, Obama “guarantee[d]” that “we will have in [my] first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I'm promoting.” Forty-nine months later, he still hasn’t introduced one.

So why does the president currently enjoy a 41-percentage-point lead among Latino voters? Because his GOP rival is the most incompetent immigration candidate either party has ever nominated. Obama may be mediocre on the issue, but Romney is downright nonsensical. In the primary, the former Massachusetts governor staked out a right-wing position far more strident and radical than anything the moment required; in the general, his sudden, unrelenting evasiveness has made him seem even less trustworthy than before. Eventually, Romney’s lack of leadership on immigration could cost him the White House.

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Republicans haven’t always been immigration oafs. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed into law a sweeping reform bill designed to tighten security at the border, penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers, and provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who had entered the country before 1982. (Congress later weakened its enforcement measures.) George W. Bush, a Texan who spoke Spanish on the trail and proposed comprehensive immigration reform once in office, won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and nearly 40 percent four years later. In 2008, the GOP nominated another supporter of comprehensive reform, John McCain, to face off against Obama. All of which made a certain kind of electoral sense: America's Latino population is projected to triple in size over the next four decades, to 133 million, rendering it the fastest-growing source of potential votes in the country.

But when it comes to immigration, Romney hasn’t just refused to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps; he has run, screaming, in the opposite direction. Before securing the Republican nomination, Romney bent over backwards to brand himself as an anti-illegal-immigration zealot. He endorsed S.B. 1070, citing some of its provisions as a “model” for the nation. He came out in favor of “self-deportation,” a chimerical “policy” proposal designed to make the lives of America’s 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants so miserable that they’ll simply leave the country on their own. And he promised to veto the DREAM Act if it were ever to pass Congress. Romney’s goal was to show skeptical right-wing primary voters that he, too, could be ultraconservative, and he chose immigration as the issue on which to outflank rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, who were both making more moderate noises at the time. Never mind that fewer than 3 percent of these primary voters named immigration as their biggest concern. Romney just kept digging himself a deeper hole.

When the primary season ended, Team Mitt seemed to recognize that the boss’s old fire-breathing rhetoric would soon become more self-immolating than anything else, so in recent weeks the candidate has clearly changed course on immigration. Sadly, Romney’s new strategy seems to consist of sounding vague, calculating, noncommital, and weasley every time the subject comes up. The effect has been almost comical. In an interview with CBS’s Bob Schieffer earlier this month, Romney refused to confirm or deny whether he’d repeal the Obama administration’s decision to stop deporting certain undocumented immigrants—even after Schieffer asked five separate times. A few days later, Romney's staffers ended a conference call as soon as three reporters dared to ask about immigration, citing a lack of “on-topic” questions. Even Romney’s big speech last Thursday to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials--a soft-focus set-piece intended to repair some of the damage he incurred during primary season--was slippery, bashing Obama “for not having a long term solution... while failing to offer any meaningful specifics as to what [Romney's] own long term alternative would look like.” By the time Romney finally deigned Monday night to comment on the Supreme Court’s S.B. 1070 ruling, his remarks had the ring of unintentional irony. “It’s really ... it’s become a muddle,” he said. He might as well have been describing his own position.

It’s hard to recall another presidential candidate who adopted a campaign strategy as self-defeating as Romney’s immigration muddle. When Bush captured 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, he won every single Latino-rich swing state: Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida. Four years later, McCain slipped to 31 percent support and lost them all. Right now, Romney is polling at a paltry 25 percent among Hispanics. If that number holds through November, there’s almost no way, mathematically, that he can beat Obama on Election Day.

Some Republicans insist that Romney’s caginess is necessary. After all, the Arizona law is popular with whites and independent voters, they say, and Mitt has to maintain a hard-line stance in order to mobilize a GOP base that still distrusts him. But right now, Republicans are far more fired up about obliterating Obama than anything else, and the rest of the electorate is obsessed with jobs and the economy, not immigration. The number of voters who would sit out or defect simply because Romney took a clear, less-than-completely-right-wing stand on immigration is microscopic, and it's certainly far smaller than the number—many of them undecided Latinos or independents uncomfortable with Jan-Brewer-style nativism—who would give him a second look. There’s a reason Latino Republicans such as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez are urging Romney to show some spine on immigration. It’s not because they want him to lose.

And yet Romney muddles on. Was the Supreme Court’s S.B. 1070 decision “the last moment that Mitt Romney had in this campaign cycle to fundamentally alter the dynamic with Latino voters,” as Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg wrote on Monday? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see. But it was almost certainly another missed opportunity for Mitt. Imagine if Romney had stopped stonewalling for a second or two and instead told reporters that the old Bush-McCain comprehensive immigration-reform plans were actually “reasonable proposals.” That he supports the idea of “work[ing] your way into becoming a legal resident of the country by working here without taking benefits and then applying and then paying a fine.” That it is not “practical or economic for the country” to deport America’s 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants because “these people contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society.”

It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch: those are all things that Romney has said before, back when he wasn’t running for president. But imagining that kind of Romney would mean imagining a Romney who stops acting as if he’s scared of doing something wrong all the time and who starts acting as if he aspires to do something right. The good news for Democrats—and the bad news for Republicans—is that this Romney no longer seems to exist.