In a remarkable acknowledgement of the need for damage control, GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus went off yesterday not only on Republican Rep. Steve King for his abrasive comments identifying DREAMers with drug mules, but for the term used by the party’s 2012 presidential nominee to describe his basic position on what to do with 11 million undocumented workers: “self-deportation.” Here’s a report from Business Insider‘s Brett Logiurato:

In condemning Rep. Steve King’s incendiary comments on immigration, RNC chairman Reince Priebus swept in his party’s presidential nominee, saying that talk of “self-deportation” was “horrific” and even “racist.”

Mitt Romney repeatedly used the term during the Republican primary campaign to talk about how his immigration enforcement policies would lead to unauthorized immigrants leaving the U.S. of their own accord, rather than needing to be deported.

“Using the word ‘self-deportation’ — it’s a horrific comment to make,” Priebus said, in a forceful rebuke. “I don’t think it has anything to do with our party. When someone makes those comments, obviously, it’s racist.”

Preibus spent much of a mid-afternoon session with reporters defending the party’s progress with Latino voters and steps on immigration reform, which it made a priority five months ago in its touted Growth and Opportunity Project.

Wow. By the plain meaning of his own words, Priebus is saying the man he spent much of last year trying to place in the White House was “obviously” using “racist” language on a very big issue.

When you read in the insidery campaign books about that fateful candidate debate on January 23, 2012, when Romney first used the term “self-deportation” to describe his strategy for dealing with the undocumented (thought it was far from the last time), his staff was taken by surprise, but were not alarmed. According to Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds, they were not aware of the term’s long and toxic history in California’s immigration debate, when it was used often by then-Gov. Pete Wilson as the aim of Prop 187. Romney himself thought he was being very clever:

Somewhere in the lobe of Romney’s brain devoted to pandering he figured that self-deportation would work as a “dog whistle”–a coded message–to the anti-immigrant crowd. But it left a much stronger impression on those it was directed against.

Indeed. But that’s not who Mitt was thinking about in the heat of the GOP primaries, was he? When he first introduced the term, he added, speaking of the undocumented, “We’re not going to round them up.” So he seems to have thought he had come up with a “third way” between legalization and putting millions of people in cattle cars headed for the Mexican border.

This is the legacy of the GOP on immigration that Priebus is struggling with right now, where even “establishment” figures like Mitt Romney follow the example of the famously “moderate” Republican Pete Wilson in using racist language to pander to racists who would actually prefer to hear something a little more openly racist. But in making his admission, Priebus has somehow forgotten, to his likely peril, the contemporary conservative maxim that the only racists are people who talk about racism. So aside from dealing with the wrath of Steve King, the chairman of the GOP is going to have a tough time digging himself out of this one.

UPDATE: Business Insider has now corrected the story quoted above to delete the word “racist” from the Priebus quote. So he apparently just called Romney’s use of “self-deportation” merely “horrific.” You can judge for yourself how much difference that makes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.