Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ian M. MacIsaac: Romney fumbles the ball at gathering of Latino public servants; tortured, contradictory Obama-lite proposals inspire more contempt than confidence

  Mitt Romney received a chilly reception Thursday at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), coming there in a defensive posture over the issue of immigration in the wake of the executive order issued by President Obama.

  It was just over a week ago, on June 15, that the president announced in the Rose Garden that "eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization."

  The order could allow close to one million immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as minors to remain in the United States for the foreseeable future.

  Obama's announcement of the order has dominated the national conversation on immigration for multiple news cycles, and put Governor Romney and the Republican Party on defense when it comes to immigration.

  It was in the context of this gutsy and ultimately well-received move by the president that the former Massachusetts governor was received, skeptically, by the assembled crowd.

  Romney's remarks avoided many immigration hot buttons. He did not speak about the draconian immigration legislation passed in Arizona and Alabama. He did not use the word "amnesty."

  In addition, Romney's curious infatuation with his tortured and incomprehensible invention of "self-deportation" has apparently ended; he did not use the phrase once in his speech to NALEO, despite having used the term since the earliest debates in the 2008 primary cycle. (It became more well-known after his explanation of it in the Jan. 23rd NBC/National Journal Republican debate as "people decide that they can do better by going home because they can't find work here, because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here").

  Despite accomodating his crowd to a degree uncommon for a Republican presidential candidate, numerous obvious applause lines of Romney's were greeted with stony silence, and those that did warrant a response from the audience got applause more appropriate for a golf game than a political rally.

  It was his few concrete policy proposals that elicited the majority of the audience's sparse approval (there were no cheers at all, for any speech line nor upon Romney's entrance or exit).

  Romney mentioned four main proposals: to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who join the U.S. armed forces or complete advanced university degrees; exempting the spouse and/or children of those who are already permanent residents from the existing waiting list for green cards; and extending the length of temporary worker visas and make them easier to get.

  Romney's ideas were surprising out of the mouth of any Republican presidential candidate. Virtually every one of his proposals is opposed by some wing of his party, and the package as a whole is more like Obama-lite than anything that, until now, has traditionally been proposed by the Republican Party's (presumptive) nominee for president.

  But to the assembled Latino officials and television viewers, most of them likely with little idea of the recent White House machinations and manipulations, Romney appeared to be trying to slither in silently behind the president's courageous stand on the issue, not to mention put a tourniquet on the Republican Party's ongoing hemorrhage of Latino voters without having to alienate the party's traditional base, which is overwhelmingly white.

  It does not seem to be working. "American voters want--and the Republican Party needs--visionary plans to fix the immigration system," as Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund, said in a Friday article on Romney's speech in the New York Times; "not tweaks around the margin where the only path to legal status for grandmothers is to enlist in the military."


  But what many of the assembled Latino officials--not to mention the viewers at home--were not aware of at the time was how different all of this was supposed to be for Mitt Romney. He had been planning a major political coup over President Obama at a crucial electoral moment, yet the president proved himself an even more deft political maneuverer.

  What happened was, at the time Obama signed the executive order, Republican Senator from Florida and Romney VP prospect Marco Rubio was preparing a bill of immigration proposals very similar to Obama's eventual order, modeled on the DREAM Act that we all heard so much about in 2011 but that failed to make it through Congress. Romney was planning to publicly back Rubio's bill once the senator had introduced it.

  It was supposed to be part of a graceful and politically unnoticed sort of shift by Romney on immigration that would not prompt charges of flip-flopping, which Romney has wrestled so often with in the past, and would instead endear him to voters in the way that President Obama's statement of his "evolving" views on same sex marriage--and eventual "personal endorsement" of marriage equality--did for many voters on the left, as well as independents.

  This plan of Romney's was a stretch in the first place. First, he's not the president. Plus, many American voters--particularly those in his own party--already see him as an unprincipled, serial flip-flopper.

  Romney now runs the risk of alienating all three of the key constituencies he will need to hold if he wants any chance of winning this election, or even losing it in less than a landslide:

(a) anti-immigration right-wingers who flocked to him in 2008 in defiance of John McCain's obsession with immigration reform and Mike Huckabee's evangelical-Christian everyone's-a-child-of-God rhetoric;

(b) the numerical majority of the Republican base, who did not support him for one reason or another in the primary and who he has worked very diligently to prove acceptable to, particularly as it comes to eliminating the old flip-flopping charges; and, most importantly,

(c) the independent voters who, should they be tilting toward a more pro-immigrant sentiment, will therefore likely prefer Obama's full-throated proposals to Romney's fiddling around the margins; or, should they be tilting toward an anti-immigration sentiment, will perhaps be displeased enough by Romney's change on the matter to simply not come out to vote for him or Obama.


  The weakness of Romney's proposals was unsurprising. Bland, stiff, and distant is the Mitt Romney default, both in content as well as delivery.

  What is surprising is the degree to which his speech indicated a clear shift in the presumptive Republican nominee's position on a major issue in the face of a popular progressive policy on the subject.

  In fact, it's borderline historic--as far as contemporary presidential politics goes, at least.

  Since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, as an almost uniform rule, it was the Democrats who moved to the right, away from their base, slowly but surely becoming Republican-lite--and, as a consequence, losing even more elections.

  After all, who gets excited about a candidate who merely represents the lesser of two evils? I remember hearing that phrase over and over again all through 2004 in reference to John Kerry. He wasn't much, my parents and parents' friends used to say at dinner together, but he's certainly "the lesser of two evils." And he lost. It was not a winning formula.

  Romney is the same kind of candidate. Republicans easily prefer him to Barack Obama, yet Romney both as a candidate and as a personality lacks any positive distinguishing factor that does not involve a comparison with the sitting chief executive.

  But as likely as Romney is to lose this election to President Obama, that need not be the fate of the Republican nominee in the next election as well, in 2016, against whoever succeeds Obama as the Democratic Party standard-bearer.

  It is hard to imagine the rage that would fester among conservatives should they be exiled from the White House for three consecutive terms, as Democrats were under Reagan and Bush Senior from 1981 through 1993.

  Yet that seems just as certain as well if the legacy of Romney's nomination is an abiding split in the Republican Party between the anti-Romney, anti-compromise Tea Partiers, and the party's establishment.

  The non-extremist, establishment wing of the party could easily find itself chasing the ever-increasing pool of minority voters, particularly Asians and Latinos, closer and closer toward the center, crippled by a Tea Party on their right flank that will likely become more and more belligerent on issues concerning immigration and minorities in general.

  Of course, many in the Republican Party had a feeling something like this would eventually happen should Governor Romney win the nomination.

  God knows the party rejected Romney thoroughly enough in the 2008 primary; not to even mention how long it took him to close the deal with the Republican base in this year's primary debacle.

  The hardline conservatives who have derided Romney since 2007 as a flip-flopper and/or a Republican-in-name-only and/or a generally bad nominee for president are now in the awkward position of having to support this guy that they know will almost certainly lose, while having spent the past five years warning that he would almost certainly lose. I almost feel bad for the Republican base. But I don't.

  About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.

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