02/21/2012 03:16 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

Mitt Romney Isn't 'Tough' On Immigration -- He's a Coward

A particularly insidious linguistic habit in American political discourse is to label as "tough" any right wing position, no matter the context. For instance, you can work diligently to avoid serving your country during a time of war, but if you are a warmonger who advocates bombing other countries at the first opportunity, you are likely to be labeled as "tough."

Being labeled "tough" because you love the idea of other people dying during wars is only one such misuse of the word. A recent New York Times headline read "Romney's Tough Immigration View is at Odds with his Church." The article noted that the Mormon Church has recently played a decisive and admirable role in shifting Utah's politics in a direction more favorable to undocumented immigrants. For example, the Church worked to promote legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to attain "guest worker" permits so that they could remain in the United States. It also backed the "Utah Compact," which the Times described as a "declaration calling for humane treatment of immigrants and condemning policies that separate policies."

In contrast to the Church, Romney has adopted far-right views on immigration, deriding more balanced policies as "amnesty" and advocating in favor of a climate that makes life so miserable for illegal immigrants and their families that they will engage en masse in "self-deportation." His position on immigration, which places him on the right-wing of his far right political party is -- as even Newt Gingrich has aptly noted -- a pander, plain and simple, an attempt to keep up with the GOP's ongoing rightward shift on immigration. That shift and the response of party elites to it is a good illustration of what Marc Hetherington and I described in our book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. In spite of the fact that the Republicans' growing extremism on immigration is almost certainly an electoral loser, GOP politicians are racing to catch up with their increasingly authoritarian base, for which immigration is a cut and dried issue that brooks no compromise and no subtlety of thought. According to the vast majority of authoritarian-minded voters who now populate the GOP base, a path to citizenship is intolerable and immigration is a clear threat to the American economy. If you are in the country illegally, you are a lawbreaker, plain and simple and should be punished accordingly. Therefore, whatever explains the larger global forces that spur migration and regardless of the consequences a punishment-only approach to the issue entails for families or communities is irrelevant. Because his conservative credentials are particularly suspect among the party faithful, Romney's search for political positions on which to pander to the far right is especially abject. And so it is that the former Massachusetts governor has chosen as one such issue immigration and, on that score, has indulged the authoritarian base with more relish and less conscience than any other GOP presidential aspirant.

You can describe his stated views on immigration in any number of ways -- useful for winning the nomination; unrealistic; useless, whatever -- but please don't call them "tough." Since he began running for president, there has scarcely been a major issue position on which Mitt Romney has taken anything like a principled stand. Apart from believing that he is entitled to his wealth and all the favorable tax policies that have helped him accumulate it, it's not clear that he believes in anything at all. His position on immigration isn't "tough." It's a further reflection of the core quality he's demonstrated over and over again -- craven cowardice.

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