There has been strange new respect for Mitt Romney ever since he became a token "Resistance" Republican with his outspoken criticism of Donald Trump during the last presidential campaign. Yet Romney provides occasional reminders that he is less reflective of a "model for what post-Trump GOP governance might look like" than the fact that a lot of the GOP's problems predate Trump.
This week, the former Massachusetts governor turned Utah Senate candidate reminded us he is something of an immigration hardliner. "I'm also more of a hawk on immigration than even the president," Romney told supporters. "My view was these [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] kids shouldn't all be allowed to stay in the country legally. I will accept the president's view on this, but for me, I draw the line and say those who've come illegally should not be given a special path to citizenship."
So much for the idea that Romney symbolizes Utah Republicans' "openness to immigration" compared to the conservative base elsewhere in the country. Trumpian nationalism may not carry the day with Mormon GOP voters, but Romney actually won the Republican presidential nomination himself in 2012 by running to the right of Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry on immigration. Now, for the moment at least, Romney favors a less generous legal status for DACA recipients than Trump.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Romney had the same struggles diversifying the Republican electorate that most recent GOP nominees did, since magnified by Trump's polarizing politics. In fact, Romney appears to have done a little worse than Trump among black and Latino voters. You can quibble with the exit polls, but Romney certainly didn't do markedly better.
Where Romney was more popular than Trump was among affluent, college-educated, suburban whites. Trump more than made up for that in the critical battleground states by appealing to working-class whites, a strategy that accounts for the fact that he became president and Romney did not.
Trump himself panned Romney's use of the clunky locution "self-deport" to describe how he would deal with illegal immigrants. Trump called it "mean-spirited," "crazy," and "maniacal."
"It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote," Trump said at the time. "He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country."
Then again, maybe Romney has a point on immigration. He speaks humanely and compassionately about immigrants while seeking to address some of the concerns Republican voters have with the size, skill levels, assimilation and legal status of current immigrant inflows. In much of the Western world, that task has fallen to demagogues rather than responsible political actors, to the detriment of both immigrant communities and their host countries.
"Self-deportation," like "binders full of women," might be an easy word choice to mock. But encouraging the voluntary repatriation of illegal immigrants by enforcing laws against unscrupulous employers and using proven verification systems is preferable to, and less coercive than, raids and a heavy ICE presence.
Trump, by contrast, has been unable to address immigration levels because he failed even to persuade most Senate Republicans to support his preferred DACA deal. The end result is the United States continues to admit a large number of immigrants, in many cases without regard to their job skills, while the sitting president harasses and insults them. This is the worst of all possible worlds.
It is difficult to imagine Romney musing to Democratic senators about "shithole countries."
Romney is a well-meaning but awkward political figure. He should easily win his Senate race and, like Jeff Flake, be an occasional thorn in Trump's side. But he can't be counted on to navigate the thorny immigration issue, much less chart a path forward for the Republican Party to get out of its Trumpian funk while still keeping faith with its core voters.
Maybe a more eloquent and sure-footed Republican politician could make the case for sensible immigration enforcement and the admission of legal immigrants in somewhat smaller numbers but with higher skills relative to the existing labor force. They'd be doing a job that neither Romney nor Trump can do.