There was genuine suspense in Barack Obama’s announcement that he will through executive order legalize about a million young undocumented immigrants. The details are a bit more nuanced—a minimum five years residency, high school graduate status, and a crime free record are preconditions, and the order contemplates applications for guest worker status rather than citizenship—but it is still a sweeping unilateral move that broke the partisan gridlock on immigration. As such, the non-Fox media has pronounced it a masterstroke that will widen the already sizable gap between Obama and Mitt Romney with Hispanics.
To be sure, the politics are considerably more complicated. The white working class voters whom Obama is struggling with, and who swung decisively toward Republicans in 2010, are unlikely to be impressed. The portion of the Latino vote preoccupied with immigration policy, as opposed to jobs or social issue controversies, could already be secured for Obama and this latest move may not move the needle much more. To conservatives, Obama’s by-pass of Congress drives the narrative that a closet, hard-left agenda is lurking in a second term, which may keep them galvanized to defeat him.
But the ambiguity of the politics for Obama shouldn’t conceal the reality of a missed Romney opportunity. Obama’s maneuver is, no doubt deliberately, a close match with Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s own recent proposal on immigration, with the only substantial difference that Rubio’s contains the stiffer requirement of college graduation or the pursuit of a degree. Imagine if Romney had seized the issue and made the Rubio bill his own template for gradual reform that stops short of citizenship. In one swoop, Romney would have validated the conservative argument that citizenship ought to be a prize waiting for immigrant families who played by the letter of the rules, while refuting the Democratic argument that conservatives are nativists who are skeptical of the Hispanic influx. There would have been some level of grumbling on the right, but the well-worth-making tradeoff would have been progress toward describing a Romney term that is not the backward lurch Democrats want to depict.
There is impatience, understandably, in Republican circles with the legitimacy of the aforementioned argument that Obama’s campaign manager extolled at length in New York Magazine: that Romney is an “avatar of revanchism”, or in non East Coast literary speak, the kind of intolerant, fifties bred white guy who is standing in for all the sexist, anti-minority, homophobic types who want to get back the cultural ground they have lost. Republicans blanche at the theme, for all it implies about the smug certainties of the left, and as sage an observer as Ross Douthat doubts it will work on the grounds it is out of touch with the electorate’s economic priorities.
But the fact that the charge has smug overtones and won’t trump the economy doesn’t ensure that the message won’t sting. It is all but a given that the Democratic effort to enlarge November into a referendum on generational progress will be the last card played, especially if the doldrums in the economy persist. And the aim is not the discrete interest groups who stand to prosper from Obama policies, but the cohort of youngish white professionals who don’t want to be embarrassed by their vote and distrust the cultural base of conservatism. It’s a not unreasonable Democratic bet that their disenchantment with Obama’s results on jobs and deficits might be tempered by the lingering symbolism he (fairly or unfairly) represents.
In turn, there would be remarkable risk in Romney running with no nod toward that swath of voters who are open to replacing Obama but altogether reluctant to disown the sea change in American culture that has crested in the Obama era. A Romney counter-thrust shouldn’t and won’t happen on abortion, where pro-lifers now number a slim majority, or gay marriage, where ambiguous polling is outweighed by same sex marriage defeats in crucial states like North Carolina. But there is room on immigration, where a conservative rationale can be constructed for distinguishing between children and law-breaking adults. Indeed, Obama’s appeal to encourage and reward responsibility could have been crafted just as convincingly for Romney.
At least there was room until last Friday. To be sure, the complex politics of the issue will limit the damage, but there is another kind of injury in close campaigns from a missed opportunity.