Immigration Ruling Puts Romney in a Rhetorical Tangle

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets attendees at the NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) conference in Orlando Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Responding to the Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s immigration law has become a head-spinning exercise for Mitt Romney’s camp.

Shortly after the court issued its 5-3 decision, the Romney campaign sent a predictable statement to reporters. Reiterating his support for states to secure their borders—without stating his position on the law—the campaign attacked President Barack Obama for breaking a 2008 promise to enact comprehensive immigration reform if elected. “Today’s decision underscores the need for a President who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy,” the press release said. “This represents yet another broken promise by this president.”

Later on Monday, Politico pressed for more detail on the Republican candidate’s position and got into a highly surreal exchange with Romney’s traveling spokesman Rick Gorka. In the back-and-forth, which Politico considered absurd enough to publish the entire transcript, reporters asked 20 specific questions about the ruling. Gorka answered each one, but each answer was virtually identical to the one before it, a virtual feedback loop of vetted talking points.

QUESTION: Does (Romney) 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: 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: What is his position on the actual law in Arizona?

GORKA: “Again, each state has the right within the Constitution to craft their own immigration laws since the federal government has failed.”

QUESTION: But does the Governor have a position on the Arizona law besides supporting the right of states?

GORKA: “This debate is sprung from the president failing to address this issue, so each state is left and has the power to draft and enact their own immigration policy.”

QUESTION: But the Arizona law does very specific things, does the governor support those things that the Arizona law does?

GORKA: “We’ve addressed this.”

Some 13 queries later, Romney’s spokesman still had not answered the direct question of whether the governor agreed with the Arizona statute, and Gorka referred the reporters back to the campaign’s statement issued earlier in the day.

Later on Monday, Romney attended a fundraiser in suburban Phoenix, where presumably he had no choice but to drop a few more crumbs. He told donors: “I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to states, not less,” Reuters reported.

The trouble is that it is impossible for Romney to have it both ways politically on the court’s Arizona ruling, even as the law’s supporters and detractors have emphasized the portions of the decision they like. If Romney wants the courts to give states more latitude in setting immigration policy, he is in effect curtailing his options should he seek to pass comprehensive immigration reform if he were elected in November. Advocating that states enact an even more confusing patchwork of laws than those already in place will only make it more difficult for Congress and the president to set a clear policy.

However, judging by his campaign’s own patchwork of statements, it’s not clear Romney knows what that policy should be.

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