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Fred Bauer

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A Romney 'Pivot' on Illegal Immigration Could Exact a Political Price

Posted: 04/12/2012 12:49 pm

Mickey Kaus, spurred on by other media speculation, wonders whether Mitt Romney will pivot on immigration now that the primary race seems to be drawing to a close.  Kaus fears/anticipates that Romney will switch from his pro-enforcement position to some kind of support for mass legalization for undocumented immigrants.

However, numerous political dangers could accompany a Romney immigration pivot.  What heightens the danger of such a switch is that Romney has a limited number of pivots he can make.  Because he needs to ward off the narrative that he is a "flip-flopper," Romney must ensure that his pivots are as few as possible and provide as much utility as possible.  Switching on immigration enforcement might be an electoral waste of a pivot.

Romney's strong stance on immigration enforcement is one of his strongest ties to the conservative grassroots.  His persistent defense of immigration enforcement helped him fend off both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.  An openness to amnesty is one of the (many) third rails of grassroots conservative politics. Romney has challenged this slice of the electorate a lot already; he can't afford to pick needless fights with it.  It would be infuriating to the grassroots to see Romney stay consistent on Romneycare while turning his back on immigration enforcement.  Many (though not all) of the conservatives who promised during the primary to stay home if Romney were the nominee are likely to hold their noses and vote for him in November, but, if he pushes too many of them too far, he might lose more than a few disaffected conservatives.

Moreover, it just isn't clear that support for some kind of amnesty will rally Hispanics to a Republican candidate.  Few Republicans fought as loudly and proudly for legalizations of all types as did John McCain throughout 2008.  But, when election day came, he lost Hispanics by 36 points to Barack Obama  (31-67 percent).  George H.W. Bush was the vice president of a man who pushed through an unambiguous amnesty for undocumented immigrants (Ronald Reagan).  Bush lost Hispanics by 40 points in 1988 (30-70 percent).  Or consider the converse of this: the most pro-enforcement GOP candidate, Romney also convincingly won Latinos in both the Arizona and Florida primary races.  His support for enforcement did not sink him.

The fact that support for legalizations might not be politically beneficial does not necessarily mean that it is bad policy, but the Romney camp should not be mistaken in thinking that pivoting to amnesty will be a successful pander to Hispanic voters.  Poll after poll after poll shows that Hispanics, like many other Americans, are interested in much more than just immigration issues: the economy, education, and other issues often rank higher for American Hispanics.  Furthermore, many Hispanics support immigration enforcement.

Instead of slicing and dicing America into ethnic groups with distinct panders, Romney should instead put forward a campaign theme that speaks to the needs of all Americans -- "white," "black," and Hispanic.  Support for immigration enforcement seems a position that appeals to the middle.  Contrary to Beltway spin, opposing a perpetual influx of exploited serfs is a centrist, popular position.  As median wages continue to stagnate if not decline, Americans are anxious about threats to the middle class.  Many Americans see illegal immigration as a wedge used by the wealthy against the middle and working classes, undercutting the wages of the native-born and legal immigrants.  I've suggested before that Romney could use his support of immigration enforcement as part of a broader message for improving the prospects of the American middle class in the twenty-first century.

Gingrich and Santorum made inroads by charging that Romney represented elite monied interests, and Barack Obama seems likely to try to use class warfare and the politics of resentment as a smokescreen to cover up the economic disappointments of his administration.  (Never mind that Obama's own term as president has seen economic inequality grow even more.)  Supporting immigration enforcement could be one way of showing that Romney stands with the middle and could provide a contrast between the GOP challenger and the president.

Defending immigration enforcement need not be a demonization of the other.  Romney could focus his criticisms on those businesses and individuals that knowingly hire illegal labor: focus, that is, on the jobs.  Government benefits going to undocumented immigrants could also be a fruitful topic.

Romney can put together a message that both supports the middle class and provides a vision for further economic growth; the decline of the middle class is one of the biggest problems if not the biggest problem the post-2000 economy faces.  Immigration enforcement could play a role in this message of the middle.  Romney might regret trading that electoral tool for a fruitless pander to certain activists and corporate lobbyists.

 

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