Romney’s Dream Act Response Highlights Political Peril

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Jim Wilson / The New York Times / Redux

Supporters of the Dream Act hold a banner outside the Republican presidential debate hosted by CNN and the Arizona Republican Party outside the event in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 22, 2012.

Mitt Romney faced a Catch-22 in President Barack Obama’s high-profile roll-out of a regulatory version of the Dream Act last Friday. The presumptive GOP presidential candidate crafted a careful response, but not a particularly compelling one.

The first instinct of any politician in a tight race would be to attack his opponent. But if Romney opposed Obama’s move to abandon deportation and prosecution of some young illegal immigrants he could enrage Latinos. Those voters may be the key to victory in southwestern and mountain states, and thus to overall electoral college victory in November’s election.

On the other hand, Romney could hardly embrace Obama’s new policy without cost. If did he would alienate the nativist base of the GOP already sensitive to the idea that with the nomination secure he will abandon the right and run for the center. Most of the primary season was spent assessing just how damaging a Romney candidacy would be to GOP turnout in November.

(PHOTOS: From the Family Photos of an Undocumented Immigrant)

Given the carefully choreographed roll-out, there was no way Romney could just ignore the issue. That was part of the cleverness of the Obama move. Not only was it a sharp and targeted wedge aimed at splitting two voting blocs Romney needs in November. It was also a jujitsu-like move to use the momentum of Latino discontent at the president’s inaction on immigration to Obama’s own advantage. Over the last three years, Obama has faced attacks from Lations for not doing more to push immigration reform, either by forcing the Dream Act or other measures through a recalcitrant Congress or by embracing executive branch options instead.

But Romney wasn’t in a great position to remind people of Obama’s inaction on the issue. Early in the GOP nomination battle, he’d threatened to veto the Dream Act, at least the 2010 iteration of the bill, as authored by its longtime champion, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Then at the Florida GOP primary debate in January, Romney said he’d embrace a version of the Dream Act tailored narrowly for veterans. “I wouldn’t sign the Dream Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service,” he said at the debate in Florida.

Acknowledging the vulnerability of the GOP position, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio began working up his own version of the Dream Act, by way of a GOP response, or defense, against the mounting Democratic focus on Latinos. Romney said he was studying Rubio’s plan, and later called for a GOP version of the act. “We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party,” Romney told donors at a private fundraiser in mid-April.

(MORE: Can Marco Rubio Win More Latinos Over to the GOP?)

All of which left Romney and his campaign with a choice Friday. He could play it safe, accentuating whatever slight differences might exist between the nascent Rubio plan and the one Obama had just unveiled with full fanfare. That would  be a tough sell, since Obama appeared to have crafted his measure explicitly to steal Rubio’s thunder. Alternatively, Romney could go bold, embrace the President’s plan, perhaps even go a step further, become a champion of immigration reform and shift his bets from the base to Latinos.

In an interview for Sunday’s Face the Nation on CBS, taped Saturday in Pennsylvania where Romney was campaigning, Romney showed he was opting for the cautious response:

SCHIEFFER: “[W]ould you repeal [Obama’s immigration] order if you became president?” …

ROMNEY: “This is something Congress has been working on, and I thought we were about to see some proposals brought forward by Senator Marco Rubio and by Democrat senators, but the President jumped in and said I’m going to take this action … [H]e was president for the last three and a half years and did nothing on immigration. Two years he had a Democrat House and Senate, did nothing of a permanent or long-term basis. What I would do, is I’d make sure that by coming into office, I would work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution for the children of those that have come here illegally.” …

SCHIEFFER: “But would you repeal this?” …

ROMNEY: “[M]y anticipation is I’d come into office and say we need to get this done, on a long-term basis, not this kind of stop-gap measure. What the president did, he should have worked on this years ago, if he felt seriously about this he should have taken action when he had a Democrat House and Senate, but he didn’t. He saves these sort of things until four and a half months before the general election.” …

Romney may yet get bold on immigration reform, or other issues for that matter. Four and a half months can be a long time in presidential politics. Then again, if he does, he can expect Obama to throw that last line about waiting to the last minute directly back at him.

COVER STORY: Jose Antonio Vargas’ Life as an Undocumented Immigrant