Of all the issues on which Mitt Romney will be tempted to execute an “Etch-a-Sketch” moment as he heads into the general election, immigration is the most pressing. Remember, on immigration Romney didn’t just rely on his super PAC to slur his opponents; he identified himself robustly with the nativist strain in the GOP. This worked out fine in the primaries: It helped him snuff the existential threat of Rick Perry’s candidacy, and provided additional fodder for his team’s crucial attack on Newt Gingrich after the South Carolina primary. The general election, though, is a different proposition. With the Hispanic community an increasingly large part of the electorate, Romney will need to campaign for at least some part of the Hispanic vote, and his rhetoric in the past few months doesn’t leave him with many options to do so.
Romney himself recently acknowledged his need for Hispanic voters to an elite GOP donor audience in Florida:
Predicting that immigration would become a much larger issue in the fall campaign, Romney told his audience, “We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party,” warning that recent polling showing Hispanics breaking in huge percentages for President Obama “spells doom for us.”
But as eager as Romney is to pivot, the vocal positions he took earlier in this campaign will make it very hard for him to do so. There are two lines it will be difficult for Romney to cross without inviting fresh charges of flip-flopping: his opposition to “amnesty,” which largely rules out any comprehensive immigration reform proposal that includes large-scale legalization; and his loud embrace of “self-deportation” of undocumented workers. This latter position, which seemed relatively mild in the context of GOP primaries where many voters favored forced deportation, now identifies Romney with the various state efforts inspired by Arizona’s SB 1070, which are designed to make life very difficult for illegal immigrants—and which tend to make life difficult for Hispanics generally. (Indeed, Romney has repeatedly endorsed SB 1070, calling it a national model, even as it receives a new burst of publicity as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments against it this week.)
Romney has nonetheless begun moderating his hard-line positions, with somewhat muddled results. His staff is now suggesting that Mitt’s endorsement of SB 1070 was partial, mainly based on the law’s features forcing employers to verify the documentation of workers. And there are reports that he’s no longer treating Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the drafters of the Arizona law, as his principal advisor on immigration issues. Romney has also expressed interest in the idea of a “Republican version” of the DREAM Act, though he’s been hesitant to endorse Marco Rubio’s proposal to give undocumented people temporary legal status if they go to college or enter the military, presumably because that might discourage “self-deportation.”
Introducing these kinds of nuances into Romney’s immigration positions may not elicit a backlash, but it’s questionable whether it’s enough to win over skeptical Hispanics. Yet any explicit flip-flop by Romney on immigration will reinforce his image as a calculating prevaricator. That will not only hamper his ability to establish credibility among Hispanics, it will damage his appeal to swing voters. He also has to be sure to protect his right flank, particularly since the white independent voters he desperately needs tend to harbor some nativist sentiments. (Its unclear if such latent xenophobia will be affected by news that the flow of undocumented workers entering the country has largely ended and net migration from Mexico has officially reached zero.)
Of course, many pundits think Mitt just needs to put someone with a Spanish surname on the ticket to attract Hispanic voters. But the two most likely candidates, Marco Rubio and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, both have plenty of other flaws (the first-term governor Martinez raises the specter of Sarah Palin; a recent PPP poll shows Rubio not helping Romney even among Florida Hispanics as a running-mate.) In any case, both Rubio and Martinez have repeatedly said they are not interested in joining the ticket.
Romney has previously said that Hispanics care more about the economy than about immigration policy. With his stance on immigration, he better hope that’s true—and that he can get a large enough minority of that vote to win battleground states. And if all else fails, I suppose, he always has the nuclear option: arguing that the polygamous colony his great-grandfather founded south of the border makes him a “Mexican-American.” That’s sure to go over well.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.