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GOP waits for marching orders on immigration

<p>From time to time over the last few years, there's been some debate about who, exactly, is the nation's leading Republican.</p
One GOP leader is waiting for marching orders from another.
One GOP leader is waiting for marching orders from another.

From time to time over the last few years, there's been some debate about who, exactly, is the nation's leading Republican. Is it John Boehner or Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill? How about Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor? Maybe the RNC chair? Roger Ailes? Rush Limbaugh?

As of a few months ago, the mystery ended. America's leading Republican is the man the party -- or at least most of it -- wants to be president: former one-term Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

His transition from candidate to GOP standard bearer carries consequences Romney may not yet fully appreciate. Indeed, we saw the manifestation of this dynamic yesterday when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) balked at giving his opinion on President Obama's new immigration policy.

McConnell said he would wait -- until presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had taken a position first."I think we're going to wait and see what governor Romney has to say, and we're going to be discussing his views on this," McConnell told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday. "I think many of us may have similar views. Others may not."McConnell said he was deferring to Romney because the former Massachusetts governor is "the leader of our party from now until November -- and, we hope, beyond."

Three times McConnell was asked for his position, and three times he said he would wait for guidance from Romney.

At the surface, it's rather amusing to see Mitch McConnell refuse to take a position on a controversial issue, waiting for his party's inexperienced, flip-flopping nominee to tell McConnell what to think.

But just below the surface, there's another problem that Romney needs to acknowledge and address: as McConnell made clear, without saying so explicitly, leading the Republican Party at the national level comes with responsibilities. In GOP politics, members tend to get in line, and take specific cues from the man out front. Romney may not hold office right now, but there's an expectation that he'll give marching orders and ... lead.

This is a role that Romney is not accustomed to. Indeed, it's part of his background that generally goes overlooked, but Romney has never actually led. He's never tried. He's never had to.

As McConnell's comments yesterday helped remind us, Romney may prefer to stick to vague positions, while ducking controversial positions on controversial issues, but there are limits to this strategy. Namely, Romney's party wants to reflect his beliefs, and if he displays "a great allergy to specifics and details," as Rich Lowry put it, Republican officials are paralyzed.

And with Romney dodging questions about immigration, the GOP has no idea what to say or do.

...McConnell isn't alone. Other Republicans are also uncertain about what to do about President Barack Obama's shift last week to immigration policy. It's an issue that has vexed Republicans for years, and as Obama no doubt hopes, it has the potential to cost them Hispanic votes and the election in November.Republicans may be united in their concern about Obama's unilateral decision Friday to stop deporting young illegal immigrants who might be eligible for the yet-to-be-passed DREAM Act. But that unity does not extend to what the GOP should do next.

The issue goes well beyond immigration -- Romney hopes to avoid taking firm stands on all kinds of issues, much to the chagrin of Republicans who want to stay in line with their nominee, but have no idea what he believes.

Will Romney step up? Does he even know how?