El Hecho del Sketcho!

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Smells Like Pivot: Thomas Edsall and others smell the long-awaitedfeared Pivot on Immigration in this story about Mitt Romney, in which Romney actually seems to seek votes from the “immigrant community” by blaming Obama for not following through on the issue:

“Let the immigrant community not forget that, while he uses this as a political weapon, he has not taken responsibility for fixing the problems we have.”

According to Edsall:

Romney then used ingeniously ambiguous language that lends itself to multiple interpretations, including the idea that he just might be open to finding a way for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States:

This will be a priority of mine, if I become president, to make sure we finally reform our immigration laws step by step, secure the border, improve our legal immigration system, so we can keep people here and welcome people here who will make America a stronger nation. [E.A.]

A couple of points:

1) It’s still a little early for Romney to actually start dangling the prospect of amnesty in front of Latino voters, no? I mean, he’s semi-officially won the nomination but he’s buying a lot of trouble between now and the convention if he abandons his debate-era stance that

The right course for us is to secure the border and say nothing about amnesty …

It’s even possible that, in the passage Edsall cites, Romney’s simply talking about retaining skilled foreigners with advanced degrees, a longstanding position of his (“Staple a green card to their diploma”). It would just be too craven for him to hypocritically reverse course now. There’s time for that later.

2) A pivot of some sort is clearly on the way. “Ed Gillespie brings movement conservative cred to Romney campaign,” was the hed of a recent Matt Lewis item on the newest “senior adviser” to join Romney’s team. “Ed Gillespie brings imminent immigration Hispander to Romney campaign” would be more like it. Gillespie is one of those Beltway demographers who thinks the GOPs are doomed if they don’t somehow immediately suck up to America’s fastest growing ethnic group. This isn’t necessarily an unprincipled position–one principle of Republicans is to respect the desires of business, after all, and the Chamber of Commerce likes inexpensive immigrant labor and the amnesty that will produce more of it. In any case, Gillespie appears pretty clearly to be pro-legalization (if not legalization that ends in citizenship)–a position seemingly opposed by most current “movement conservatives.” Yes, “he’s frequently spotted at Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings,” as Lewis writes reassuringly. But Norquist’s for amnesty too. (And we’re not sure about Lewis.)

3) The question is how Romney’s pivot will be made.  I see basically four possibilities:

a) Vague empathy wrapped in an enigma. This is Edsall’s “ingeniously ambiguous language that lends itself to multiple interpretations.” I don’t see how this flies. There are concrete questions: Do you support “comprehensive immigration reform” as currently proposed? Do you support the DREAM Act (for people brought here illegally when they were young)? Do you want to finish the border fence? Do you support an E-Verify system to stop employers from hiring of illegals? The press will be relentless in pressing Romney for specifics and ridiculing vagueness. In the Latino community, coverage of his responses will be thorough. Can Romney win over these voters by pitting enigmatic answers against Obama’s quite specific positions? I suppose anything’s possible since Nixon won the White House with a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. But you’d think any ingenious empathetic ambiguity would be targeted at non-Latino independents (especially women) who are turned off by harsh, compassionless rhetoric. Not that there aren’t a lot of them.

b) Whitmanesque hamhanded fudge: Romney protege Meg Whitman also made tough border-security noises during the GOP primary before attempting a general-election pivot. It wasn’t pretty. Whitman 1) declared herself “100 percent against amnesty,” but only after deviously defining “amnesty” as legalization without any fines or requirements–i.e. a position nobody is taking and an idiosyncratic definition at odds with historic usage and 2) then, after she won the nomination, turned and declared that there was “very little over which” she and her opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown, disagreed–even though Brown favored a “path to citizenship” and Whitman didn’t (she proposed only a Gillespie-esque second-class guest worker program). Shortly thereafter Whitman was sunk by the revelation that she employed, and then fired, an illegal immigrant housekeeper. Romney advisers might be tempted to think that without this scandal her crude fudges would have worked.  It seems more likely that they a) failed to appease Latinos while b) actually insulting them with the promise of  second-class status and c) making Whitman look deceptive and untrustworthy to anyone who was paying attention.

c) The targeted concession: Jonathan Alter suggests Romney try caving on the DREAM Act

Suppose instead that Romney had talked tough on border enforcement but, like Gingrich, left the door open to working out a solution for the children of immigrants. (His current position of making allowances only for those who join the military satisfies no one.) A more vague position would hardly have cost him the Republican nomination. But it would have protected him against Obama clobbering him with the Dream Act in a debate.

Romney would probably count himself lucky if Alter’s solution– conceding DREAM–would nuke his Latino problem. In theory, DREAM only applies to a small portion of the illegal immigrant population (though Dems drafted it to cover as many as possible–up to 2.1 million by some estimates). It’s also the most appealing portion of that population–those brought here as minors through “no fault of their own.”  That’s why amnesty advocates didn’t push DREAM for years–the DREAM kids were the poster children who were supposed to provide the emotional fuel to pass the much broader general amnesty for illegals. Only when that didn’t happen was DREAM made a standalone measure.

The fear among Latino activists, of course, is that if the DREAMers are legalized, the push to legalize the remaining, less appealing illegal population will fizzle out. It’s unlikely, then, that the activists will be bought off with just DREAM, especially a tightened-up version. Nor, maybe, will Latinos who’ll know that many of their friends or relatives or neighbors wouldn’t qualify. And enforcement-firsters like me–who argue that amnesty-for-kids can be a powerful “magnet” for further border-jumping–will be incensed. Conceding DREAM–without demanding a lot of enforcement in return–would accede to the logic that it’s more important to show compassion for illegals who are here now than worry about attracting millions more in the not-distant future.

But it’s possible that DREAM has now become such a symbolic test of “heart” (to use Rick Perry’s word) that Romney could get a lot of election-year mileage out of a strategic flip-flop on the issue. Don’t rule it out–though a DREAM concession that involved only non-citizenship, as proposed by Marco Rubio, might alienate as many Latinos as it appeased. (As elaborated by Rubio, the plan doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea, at least in the short run. I just doubt it’s political efficacy.) From a policy perspective, the issue is what Romney would get in return for a DREAM law, how tightly it’s worded and whether he stops there. Nobody would know, of course. Given the pressures within the GOP from business, open-borders libertarians and Gillespie-esque pols, a flip-flop that’s rewarded by voters is likely to produce another one.  (If you really want certainty that a general amnesty won’t happen, vote for Obama and a GOP Congress.)

d) Honesty: Immigration is difficult because the two sides, deep down, may not actually agree on the goal. Bipartisan “comprehensive” reform is supposed to be a sandwich of Enforcement and Amnesty. But Enforcement advocates think the Amnesty advocates don’t actually want to secure the border against another, post-amnesty surge of illegals–they think Amnesty advocates will just advocate another amnesty down the line and smile as the Latino vote grows even larger.  Latino pols have given Enforcement types little reason to question this paranoia. An obvious compromise solution–at least as long as Enforcement voters have enough power to block a deal–is to do enough enforcement to kill off the dream of endless amnesties before debating a way to “keep people here” legally.

I would predict Romney will never say this– except (as noted above) he’s said it:

“There’s a great interest on the part of some to talk about what we do with the 11 million. My interest is saying let’s make sure that we secure the border. And we don’t do anything that talks about bringing in a new wave of those — or attracting a new wave of people into the country illegally. The right course for us is to secure the border and say nothing about amnesty …

It wouldn’t be difficult to modify this relatively hard version of “enforcement first” to realistically suggest the likely long-term outcome if it works. Something like:

Let’s make it impossible for employers to get around the law by hiring illegal immigrants, usually at lower wage. Let’s finish the job of securing the borders. Then let the ACLU and the Chamber of Commerce and the unions sue to try to get liberal federal judges to destroy all these efforts. If they fail–if employers actually stop evading the law, and the border becomes and remains secure, if would-be illegal immigrants decide to stay home and improve their home countries, or to come here legally–then at the end of a decent period of time, say eight years, the end of my second term, we can have a debate on the terms under which those who are now here peacefully living in the shadows will stay. But when we need to make sure this is the last such illegal generation, and to start instead welcoming immigrants who come legally.**

Again, this would hold limited appeal for many Hispanics–Obama’s promising amnesty by Christmas, with no end to the dream of future amnesties. But it would counter the Dems’ MSM-aided “anti-immigrant” charge against Romney–while focusing attention where it belongs: on the long term. Independents who recoil from “meanness” would be placated. So would at least some Latinos. As Gillespie argues, the point for Republicans isn’t to win the Latino vote. They just have to do better.

We’ll see. My money is on some awkward combination of (a), (b), and (c).  But (d) would be a pleasant surprise.


** — I’ve tried to label this the “FEET” Plan (Fence = E-Verify + 8 years). Catchy, no?

Mickey Kaus