In his 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attempted to use immigration as a wedge issue between conservative voters and fellow hopeful John McCain. The hit on McCain didn’t help Romney win the nomination, but it did force McCain to move to the right on an issue that could have helped him woo Latinos in the general.
Four years later, Romney is at it again, hitting Texas Governor Rick Perry on his immigration record. In the short term, Romney may enjoy a xenophobic bounce. In the long term, he is handicapping himself, Perry and his party.
Of the 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, John McCain had the greatest potential to sway the Latino vote. He was from a border state, and was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s right hand-man on the most ambitious piece of pro-reform legislation in two decades, a bill that bore his name. A lousy economy notwithstanding, he should have been a Sunbelt threat.
Enter Mitt. Eager to prove his own conservatism and box McCain out, Romney began to attack McCain on his support of legislation that included a pathway to citizenship. In December 2007, the Romney campaign upped the ante and launched an ad that slammed McCain. “McCain championed a bill to let every illegal immigrant stay in America permanently,” an announcer said sinisterly. “He even voted to allow illegal immigrants to collect Social Security.”
McCain allowed himself to be bullied. The same man who had championed comprehensive reform admitted that he “got the message” and pivoted to mindless chatter about securing the border in a successful effort to win the nomination.
In the general election, McCain only won the support of one-third of Latinos, a fact that would have marveled observers only a year before. A myriad of variables contributed to John McCain losing the 2008 presidential election, but on one of the main issues where he tripped and fell it was Mitt Romney who pushed him.
Now Romney is at it again. He has focused attention on a 2001 Texas bill Perry signed allowing in-state tuition levels for some undocumented youth. Romney called the bill a “magnet” for illegal immigration in one debate exchange. Just last week, his campaign released a video linking Perry’s position to that of prominent Democratic leaders and highlighting a clip of former Mexican president Vicente Fox praising the Texas governor. Over the weekend, Romney volunteers showed up at Perry’s New Hampshire events with pamphlets offering a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates’ immigration records.
The pathetic irony is that Romney doesn’t seem to really care about immigration. Massachusetts immigration advocates will tell you that Romney’s record on immigration is incredibly thin, and like much of his history, inconsistent. His renewed anti-immigrant crusade isn’t about doing what’s right; it’s about winning.
“I will never conduct my campaign in such a way that it makes our country’s most difficult challenges harder to solve,” McCain told a rapt audience in 2007. “I hope you will hold all candidates to that same standard. Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty.”
Romney is doing more than nothing: he’s poisoning the well, yet again.