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Why Latinos will miss Bush

Republicans these days insist that their anti-immigration stance has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. It’s the left, they say, that injects identity politics into everything. I caught the well-coiffed, permanently snarling ideologue Michelle Malkin making that exact point on television a few weeks back. “Let me drive this through the thick skulls of the open-border zealots at the New York Times and elsewhere,” she barked. “This [illegal immigration] crisis has nothing to do with race. It’s about peaceful citizens of all colors and creeds demanding that their government do everything possible to secure the blessings of liberty.” And then, as if she couldn’t control herself, Malkin punctuated her diatribe with a sarcastic bit of Spanish: “Comprende?”

OK, so immigration isn’t about Latinos. I guess that follows because as far as the Republicans are concerned, nothing is about Latinos.

Witness the Republican presidential candidate debate on the Spanish-language TV network Univision. Oh wait, that debate didn’t happen. All the contenders save Sen. John McCain claimed scheduling conflicts.

Sure, relatively few Latinos actually vote in the Republican primary. And a majority of likely Latino voters -- 61% -- don’t even watch Spanish-language television. But it was still stupid for the candidates to snub Univision. It’s just one more sign of how the GOP is retreating from its big-tent strategy, which had made sizable gains in attracting Latino voters.

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Difficult as it is to imagine, Latinos actually may have a reason to miss President Bush when he’s gone. No, not because he accomplished the “Latino strategy” that his advisors touted when he was running for president in 2000 -- passing comprehensive immigration reform and putting a Mexican American on the Supreme Court -- but because he brought more attention to the Latino electorate than any major American politician before or since.

Think back to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles seven years ago. By August of 2000, Bush’s Latino outreach had begun to broaden the appeal of the GOP, and that was sending ripples through the Democratic Party. During the convention, prominent Latino Democrats successfully leveraged Bush’s appeal to get their own party to pay more attention to the fast-growing Latino electorate. One Latino pollster complained that, in contrast to the GOP convention, he’d seen no signs that Democrats “have any effort geared toward Latinos.” Even Bill Richardson, who was then U.S. Energy secretary, conceded that the GOP strategy was working and could “hurt Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.”

The Democratic Party’s response? Strengthen its Latino outreach, give Latino Dems a higher national profile and pledge to stop taking the Latino vote for granted.

But what exactly had Bush done to raise the stakes on the Latino vote? Trotted out his elementary Spanish-language skills? Delivered on a long list of promises as governor of Texas? No, not quite. In fact, I don’t think his initial appeal had anything to do with language, ideology or immigration. Mostly what Bush did is what today’s Republican presidential hopefuls apparently cannot. He simply showed up.

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When he first started wooing Mexican American voters in 1998, while running for reelection as governor, he didn’t have much of a policy record to brag about. Indeed, it was a combination of inertia on the part of the Democrats and the symbolism of a Republican courting Latinos that helped him garner an unprecedented 40% of Texas’ Latino votes. Bush’s Latino-friendly image also helped eclipse the snarling and racially-tinged voices on the right wing of the GOP.

In 2000, Bush got a respectable 35% of the national Latino vote by running as a softer, kinder Republican who (unlike Gerald Ford) knew to take off the corn husk before biting into a tamale. That year, he talked up immigration reform. But by 2004, Osama bin Laden had knocked immigration reform off the table, and Bush’s compassionate conservative shtick had given way to the candidacy of a strong-willed and determined wartime president who spent little time talking to Latino audiences. That year, to the surprise of many observers, Bush’s share of the Latino vote jumped to a phenomenal 40%, most likely because many Democrats wanted to support the commander in chief during wartime. What do you know -- immigration isn’t the only issue that Latino Americans care about.

Some GOP hacks are promising that their eventual nominee will pay more attention to Latino voters once primary season is over. By that time, however, the snarling ideologues will have solidified the party’s hostile image. And that won’t be good for anyone. The Republicans will be a disproportionately white party in a diversifying nation. The Democrats will again take Latinos for granted, and Latino voters will be nostalgic for that brief moment when they were the most courted belle at the ball. In other words, it’ll be just like the good old days. Comprende?


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