Mitt Romney has arrived at his first general election crossroads.
President Barack Obama on Friday announced his administration would grant work permits to the children of illegal immigrants, provided the children came to America before they were 16 years old and have no legal troubles. This was an executive-branch act, controversial but seemingly within the limits of the law.
Yesterday a Bloomberg poll found that almost two-thirds of likely voters support the president’s decision, and that independent voters do so by a 2-to-1 margin. Another poll in five key “battleground” states suggests that Obama’s action has — at least initially — elevated enthusiasm among Latinos to vote for the president in November.
But the Tea Party base of the Republican Party is not close to on board. In the GOP primary, Rick Perry was torn apart for a relatively moderate position on immigration, and Romney ran to Perry’s right by encouraging illegal immigrants to “self-deport” themselves back to their countries.
But now it’s the general election, and Romney must choose: party base or independents?
He hasn’t decided yet. But he will have to.
Since Friday’s announcement, Republicans have blasted the president’s action for being nakedly political, undertaken in the midst of a presidential campaign in which Latino votes are crucial. GOP pol after pol has taken Obama to task over the legality, the politics, and the unilateralism of his move. In response to the partisanism, Politico columnist Roger Simon expressed mock shock, saying, “Wow. I’ll bet there’s gambling in Casablanca, too.”
Here is a taste of the criticism of Obama, from the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday:
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said he is “deeply alarmed that America’s president so blatantly undermines the rule of law.”
“In America, we elect presidents, not caesars,” Brooks said. “The only way to change America’s immigration law is as our Constitution demands, through Congress not by imperial decree.”
Romney has joined the criticism of Obama’s approach, but he has been conspicuously silent on the merits of the policy.
Four times in a Sunday-morning interview on CBS he was asked about whether he’d repeal Obama’s decision, and he did not answer. On Monday on Fox News, he followed the same approach, saying he’d wait to see what the circumstances were upon entering the White House.
But this not-going-to-choose approach won’t last. It can’t.
Yesterday, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell said that he didn’t want to take a position on Obama’s actions until Romney did. That’s called a punt.
Romney has exactly one day to figure out his position. On Thursday in Orlando he addresses the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and on Friday the president speaks to the same organization.
It’s a safe bet that a view by Romney of “I’m thinking about it” isn’t going to be satisfactory. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee will need a position and a rationale.
Presidential campaigns are about choices. Obama just made one. Now it’s Romney’s turn.