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The Devil They Know

Albert Einstein defined idiocy as doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result. And yet, when it comes to improving their standing with Latino voters---and let’s face it, when you’re at the bottom of a well, the only place you can go is up--- Republicans want to find a way to keep doing what they’ve been doing.

They say don’t want to change who they are, or what they believe in. But the problem is that who Republicans are, and what they believe in have proven to be, as far as Latino voters are concerned, a more effective repellent than bug spray. Many Republicans are in total denial. They think that most Latino voters are conservative on both economic and social issues, and they’re not wrong about that. Where they go wrong is that they think that, if they just put forth a strong conservative message, Latinos will be hypnotically drawn in. It’s the Pied Piper theory of politics, and it doesn’t work.

What does work is going after voters in a concerted and well-funded effort to get their support by showing them that you understand them, care about them, and above all, respect them. George W. Bush did just that and wound up with 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 and 44 percent in 2004. When a Republican racks up those kinds of numbers, his (or her) Democratic opponent isn’t going to have a chance.

As for their current difficulties, many Republicans think they’re just not getting their message through. They think they just need a better publicist. A little rhetorical nip here, a little symbolic tuck there. But they don’t just have bad messaging. They have bad policies. They give in to demons. Forget the publicist. What they could really use is an exorcist, before it’s too late. Demographics don’t lie. With another 50,000 Latinos reaching voting age every month, and Latinos projected to account for 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2030, Republicans are in a race against time. What happened to Mitt Romney is nothing. It could get even worse for the next Republican nominee.

Sure, Romney spent Election Day impersonating a piñata, while Latino voters smacked him with a broken broomstick. Romney lost the Latino vote by the widest margin since Bob Dole’s dreadful showing against Bill Clinton in 1996. Dole got 21 percent of the Latino vote. Romney got 27 percent, despite his own admission earlier in the campaign he needed to get 35 percent to be competitive with Barack Obama. Part of the problem was that Romney was a Republican. The rest was that he was, well, Romney.

Listen to the message that Romney shared after the election during what was meant to be a private call with donors. Among those on the call was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Speaking candidly, Mitt attributed his loss not to any shortcoming on his part (heaven forbid!) but to the fact that, with Latinos, for instance, Obama played Santa Claus.

“What the president did was he gave them two things,” Romney said. “One, he gave them a big gift on immigration. The amnesty for the children of illegals, the so-called DREAM Act kids, was a huge plus for that voting group. On the negative side, of course, they always characterized us as being anti-immigrant, being tough on illegal immigration, and so forth and that was effective with that group. Number two, put in place Obamacare which is basically $10,000 a family. I mean, it’s a proven political strategy which is give a bunch of money from the government to a group and guess what--- they’ll vote for you.”

And what about the man who trounced him on Election Day? President Obama has deported more than 1.5 million people and divided thousands of families, most of them Latino. While he was in the Illinois State Senate, Obama completely ignored Latino constituents and their issues. While in the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2007, he helped kill immigration reform at the behest of organized labor. And as president, he signed a border enforcement bill to build more walls and further militarize the border in 2009 and helped kill the DREAM Act in 2010. His administration replicated Arizona on the national stage and roped local and state police into the messy business of enforcing immigration law by expanding Secure Communities, which forces locals to share the fingerprints of arrestees with federal authorities. Then the administration shoved the program down the throats of Democratic governors over their objections.

And yet Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote. Why? It’s because, as bad as he is on immigration, Republicans are seen as worse. So voters stick with the Devil they know.
How do Republicans prove otherwise without changing so much that they lose their base and wind up with nothing? That’s the opportunity being presented to newly-elected Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a GOP superstar who might be in a position to make Republicans and Hispanics comfortable with one another. In a recent interview with LATINO, Cruz seemed up to the challenge.

“Our values are the same,” he said. “I think the Hispanic community is profoundly conservative. The values that resonate in our community are faith, family, patriotism, the rate of military enlistment among Hispanics is higher than any other demographic in this country. And hard work.”

As the son of a Cuban immigrant who washed dishes when he arrived in the U.S. as a teenager, Cruz thinks a lot about hard work.“Several years ago,” he recalled, “a friend asked me when was the last time I’d ever seen a Hispanic panhandler. That’s a very revealing question. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hispanic panhandler. It would be viewed as shameful to be out begging, in our community. Hispanic men and women want to work. Want to provide for our kids. Want to stand on our own feet. Those are all conservative values. Nothing resonates as powerfully in the Hispanic community as the American Dream.”

That’s one of the reasons that Cruz is so baffled by the hold that Democrats have on Latino voters.“I think the Democrats are trying to sell the Hispanic community a bill of goods,” he said. “They’re trying to tell Hispanics, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to be dependent on government?’ And I think that dependence is incredibly corrosive and we ought to be encouraging people to stand on their own.”

But what about immigration, an issue that---shared values or not---seems to have almost singlehandedly scared most Latinos away from the Republican Party? “Immigration is an issue that neither party is serious about addressing,” Cruz said. “Right now, I think that both parties are trying to demagogue the issue and looking to inflame passions and emotions rather than adopt sensible policy. In my view there is widespread agreement on a number of core principles on immigration, both in the Hispanic community and with Americans generally.”

Such as? “Number one,” he said, “we need to get serious about securing the border, about stopping illegal immigration, particularly in a post 9/11 world. It doesn’t make any sense that we don’t know who is coming into this country and we don’t know their history or background. Our government needs to be much more effective in securing the border. But number two, we need to remain a nation that doesn’t just welcome but that celebrates legal immigrants who come here seeking to pursue the American Dream.”

That is all well and good. But how does Cruz intend to not just sell Latinos on Republicans but also sell Republicans on Latinos? That could be much harder. “It starts with helping both groups realize that we have shared principles and values, whether we know it or not,” he said, “That always takes some time. But it is powerful fuel for connectivity when people from different backgrounds and walks of life realize that they believe in fundamentally the same things as other Americans.”

But does the GOP need to change, or is it fine as is? “I do think that the Republican Party needs to moderate the rhetoric it uses,” Cruz said. “I think at times the rhetoric has been harsh and divisive. I think that the rhetoric is, it is not necessarily driven by ill intent, but rather by not articulating the message in a way that resonates and connects with cultural understanding. And I think that takes time as well.”

Cruz gets it. But it’s not always clear that the GOP establishment does. The good news for Republicans is that heavy-hitters like Cruz or Florida Senator Marco Rubio can bring their party along with them, if for no other reason than because they are perceived as having bright futures and other Republicans are smart enough to follow, or at least not get in the way.

But you need more than politicians to turn a party around. You also need an army of grassroots activists, operating outside of Washington, to re-make the Republican brand as Hispanic-friendly. And one way to do that is to change the hearts and minds of Hispanics, one good deed at a time. That’s the strategy being implemented by 31-year-old Artemio Muniz of Houston. As one of the founders of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans, and the U.S.-born son of a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. without documentation and was legalized by the amnesty provided for in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

“I’m an anchor baby,” Muniz said. “Call me an anchor baby. Here I am.”

Although Mitt Romney might not be able to grasp the concept, no one came here to take anything from anybody and there were no silver spoons in the Muniz household. The father worked two jobs. Artemio remembers being lowered into a dumpster as a boy to collect bottles and cans for recycling. Today, the family owns and operates a manufacturing company. Muniz is a Republican because he believes in smaller government, lower taxes, personal liberty, and freedom. But he doesn’t believe in his party’s hard-line against immigrants---both legal and illegal. He also doesn’t think that Obama deserves even a tiny fraction of the Latino vote, given how harmful his policies are to that community.

His plan of attack is to deal directly with people at the grassroots level and address their needs. “People call it outreach,” Muniz told me. But it’s really just connecting with the community and dealing with their concerns.”

Like cleaning up their neighborhoods by picking up trash. That’s what Muniz and some of his fellow Republicans did recently. And when asked what they were doing, they responded in Spanish that they were just trying to help and identified themselves as Republicanos. Muniz is operating closer to the people and on a different track than most political operatives. But that road could be the right one.

“The world of politics is usually discussed in terms of consulting, policy, and polling,” he said. “I can do all that. But the real gold mine is the community, the grassroots, especially urban areas where neither party goes. Helping your neighbor raise a barn. That’s what conservatism is.”

Hmm. Republicans may be able to sell that message. This may not be a lost cause after all. With the right people leading the way, the Republican Party might have a decent shot at redemption with Latino voters. And that would help not just the party but also Latino voters, who---while it appears they have newfound political power given the major role they played in reelecting Obama---have, in reality, never been more powerless. If that is going to change, Latinos will have to once again split their votes between the parties. They have to be courted by both, and not taken for granted or written off by either. There should be suspense as to where those voters will come down, and the parties should have to compete hard for their support.

For Republicans, that means taking charge of the debate, for a change. So says Leslie Sanchez, Republican strategist and author of Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other. She thinks her party spends too much time on the defensive: “Republicans must stop letting the Democrats define who they are and what they want to do, especially as it relates to the Hispanic community.”

And it’s not just about one issue either. “Hispanic voters are not tied to party labels but looking for candidates with viable solutions,” Sanchez said. “That means the GOP must step up engagement in the Hispanic community, not just on immigration, but on jobs, education reform, economic growth, secure retirement and a host of other issues that Hispanic voters care about too.”

Fair enough. But before we can get to that point, Republicans have to do their part and change their ways. They have to put the immigration issue behind them and make their party more inclusive. They have to fix what’s broken, and accentuate the positive. If they want a fair share of the Latino vote, they have to give Latinos something worth voting for.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a CNN contributor, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam). You can contact him at