The squawking heads were all in such a rush to declare Mitt Romney the winner of the debate on Thursday night that they forgot to listen to what he actually said.
Romney, in parrying Newt Gingrich's charge that he is the most anti-immigrant candidate, forcefully declared: "I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive."
That defense is as phony as it is false.
It is phony because Romney's father once ran for president. But wait a minute. The constitution says, "No person except a natural born citizen shall be eligible to the office of president." Romney's father was able to run because his parents were American citizens and he therefore acquired citizenship at birth regardless of where he was born. Romney's father came to the United States for the first time, not as an immigrant, but as a full-fledged citizen who just happened to have been born abroad.
As for Romney's father-in-law, Edward Davies, he was born in Wales, but presumably came here as a legal immigrant and eventually attained citizenship. Davies went on to become the mayor of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was also a life-long, avowed atheist, who had nothing but contempt for organized religion. Davies was "converted" to Mormonism by the Romeys in a ceremony 14 months after he died.
So Romney's defense was phony because his father was never an immigrant and his father-in-law was undoubtedly a legal one. His defense is false because he is anti-immigrant, at least the illegal ones. No one has suggested that any of the candidates oppose legal immigration.
When speaking to lily-white crowds in Iowa and South Carolina, Romney's line was basically let's deport all eleven million illegal immigrants. By this point in the debates, even the most casual observer could not have failed to conclude that the Republican Party has become the party of choice for racists. That's why Romney's remarks were clearly an attempt to tap into the xenophobia and racism of his listeners.
When he got to Florida, however, the complexion of his audiences and his remarks both changed dramatically. There are three and a half million immigrants in Florida and in Miami-Dade County there are as many immigrants as there are native-born Americans. So instead of rounding up all the illegals and shipping them back to where they came from, Romney's talking point became they would all deport themselves once he took office.
Romney has ridiculed Gingrich's suggestion that some mechanism, like local draft boards of the past, be set up to consider making exceptions on a case by case basis. If his father-in-law had entered this country illegally and were still alive, would Romney want to send him back to Wales?
Once faced with voters who have some sympathy for people who came here from abroad, he changes his tune. He claims self-deportation will take care of the problem and he rewrites his family history to make his father an immigrant. His reputation for being someone who will say anything to become president is well deserved.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.