Many in the Republican Party are addicted to the divisive practice of exploiting nativist fears to scare up votes. As with any addiction, the first step to kicking it is to admit you have a problem and ask for help.
And so it is that sometimes, I’m asked to speak to Republican groups and explain where their party went wrong and what it can do to make peace with Hispanics.
They had better do something. The nation’s 46 million Hispanics are America’s largest minority, and they’re on track to represent one in four Americans by 2042. Every two years, another 1 million Hispanics join the voter rolls. Two-thirds of Hispanics voted for Barack Obama. Political experts say that, if Republicans don’t stop hemorrhaging Hispanic support, they might never win another presidential election. Period.
The good news for Republicans is that Democrats are just as clueless as they are about winning Hispanic support. Most of the time, they rely on Hispanic politicians to deliver the vote while they concentrate on soccer moms and making inroads into the suburbs. Oh, Democrats get lucky now and then. This year, they benefited from the fact that Hispanics had soured on President Bush or anything that reminded them of him and from the fact that many Hispanics — especially the young — got swept up in Obamania along with much of the nation.
But Democrats can’t afford to be too smug at the moment. After all, it was only four years ago that another Democratic nominee — John Kerry — racked up the worst showing with Hispanic voters in a presidential election since people began keeping records. Luck has a way of running out.
Meanwhile, Republicans need to re-brand their party and convince Hispanics they’re welcome. If they believe their ideas on education, economics, defense, trade, foreign policy, and other issues are superior, let them make that case to Hispanics. That doesn’t mean ditching their core principles, but it might mean changing their tone. It doesn’t mean alienating core voters, but it does means being more inclusive.
And it doesn’t mean giving up the party’s opposition to illegal immigration. Polling suggests that Hispanics will go along with enforcement measures that seem reasonable such as increasing the number of border patrol agents and giving them resources. The GOP doesn’t need to sign on to open borders. But it wouldn’t hurt to open a few minds within the party.
Specifically, there are five things that Republicans did which cost them Hispanic support.
- They made language and culture the issue rather than illegality, which irked U.S.-born Hispanics who might otherwise have stayed out of the fray;
- They didn’t condemn the racism in their ranks on the part of those who believe that Hispanic immigrants are inferior to the immigrants of old;
- They let the debate digress from one that was anti-illegal immigration to one that was anti-immigrant to, finally, one that was anti-Hispanic;
- They fell into the trap of offering simple solutions to what remains a complicated problem ; and
- They either assumed that Hispanics were not in play or that they could win some of those votes on the cheap with a spattering of Spanish ads.
None of this worked out very well, as some conservative commentators are starting to figure out. During a recent appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio show, neoconservative commentator John Podhoretz described the GOP’s anti-immigrant saber rattling as a “political and demographic disaster” for Republicans.
He’s right. And you notice Podhoretz said “anti-immigrant” as opposed to anti-illegal immigrant. He’s right about that too. People like to pretend they’re only opposed to illegal immigration. But, when they start to list the reasons why, it usually boils down to the fear that American culture is changing for the worse. And, whether it’s about language or food or customs, it is not just illegal immigrants who bring those changes. It’s also legal residents and U.S.-born Hispanics.
So, not surprisingly, a large swath of the Hispanic community takes offense — and, in the case of an embattled political party, takes names.