The Supreme Court's Arizona Decision Makes Romney's Life More Difficult

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Though he's been reluctant to take a stand, the Republican may be better off alienating some voters than letting the issue fester.

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Back in May, RNC National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator Bettina Inclan took an accidental turn as truthteller. Speaking to reporters about Mitt Romney's position on immigration, she said: "He's still deciding what his position on immigration is, so I can't talk about what his proposal is going to be because I don't know what Romney exactly ... he's talked about different issues." Though she quickly backtracked, she was never really wrong. Romney has worked very hard to remain vague about his position.

For example, during a speech last week to the National Associated of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, he very carefully sidestepped actually saying whether he would reverse President Obama's executive order halting deportations of young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

It's easy to see why Romney wants to remain elusive on immigration. The Republican base tends to take a hard line on immigration, and Romney tacked so far right on it during the primary that Texas Governor Rick Perry called him "heartless." But Romney also can't afford to write off Hispanic votes or alienate independents with strident rhetoric. Romney's strategy so far has been to accentuate the economy, reasoning that he can appeal to Latinos by arguing that their standard of living has declined under Obama.

And today, a Gallup poll delivered some vindication. The survey showed that among Hispanics generally, immigration is no more important an issue than health care or employment; and for registered Hispanic voters, it's a distant fifth. That all suggests that Romney's strategy could work. And perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise; after all, Latinos in the U.S. -- and especially American citizens -- face the same pressures as everyone else.

Unfortunately for Romney, the Supreme Court rained on his parade on the same day. He happened to be in Arizona when the Court announced its decision on the state's controversial immigration law -- most of which the justices struck down. Shortly after the decision came down, he issued a carefully worded statement that focused on scolding President Obama for failing to lead on immigration (Obama counters that he'd sign the DREAM Act promptly, if only Congress would pass it). But the statement left key questions answered: Does he support the parts of the law that were overturned? Does he support the provision, left intact, that police officers must check the papers of anyone they stop who they think might be an illegal immigrant?

To see just how badly Romney's team doesn't want to answer the question, read the amazing exchange captured by Politico between reporters and Romney spokesman Rick Gorka. Here's a selection:

QUESTION: So does he think it's wrongly decided?

GORKA: "The governor supports the states' rights to do this. It's a 10th amendment issue."

QUESTION: So he thinks it's constitutional?

GORKA: "The governor believes the states have the rights to craft their own immigration laws, especially when the federal government has failed to do so."

QUESTION: And what does he think about parts invalidated?

GORKA: "What Arizona has done and other states have done is a direct result of the failure of this president to address illegal immigration. It's within their rights to craft those laws and this debate, and the Supreme Court ruling is a direct response of the president failing to address this issue."

QUESTION: Does (Romney) support the law as it was drafted in Arizona?

GORKA: "The governor supports the right of states, that's all we're going to say on this issue."

QUESTION: Does he have a position on the law, or no position?

GORKA: "The governor has his own immigration policy that he laid out in Orlando and in the primary, which he would implement as president which would address this issue. Whereas Obama has had four years in the office and has yet to address it in a meaningful way."

And on it goes, for a total of about 20 questions without any real answer.

It's hard to imagine that Romney can remain elusive on the question until November. With both reporters and the Obama campaign hounding him, he'll be unable to escape the issue. His problem isn't particularly with Latinos; it's that overall, likely voters back Obama's order on young illegal immigrants by a 2-to-1 margin. While Romney's triangulation between conservative hardliners and the general electorate won't get any easier, it may be worth it for Romney to bite the bullet and take a stand. While it may alienate some, he's probably better off getting it over with now, rather than closer to the election. The sooner he does, the faster he can get back to talking about the economy.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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