december coverSame Elephant, New Tricks

If you ask me, I like the unofficial slogan that President Obama and the Democratic Party seem to have come up with to go after Latino voters in the 2012 election: “Vote for us. We’re not Republicans.” It’s catchy, simple and to the point.

After all, given Obama’s record on Latino concerns, his best hope is to spend the next year and half trying to convince Latinos that what’s behind Door No. 2 is much, much worse. But is it really? We don’t know that for sure. A lot of it depends on who the eventual Republican presidential nominee is among Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump et al. And in what direction the party moves between now and next November.

Right now, on the question of how to approach Latino community, the GOP is very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have a number of Republican elected officials who---recognizing that Latinos are a rapidly growing portion of the electorate and yet increasingly distant from the Republican Party---are kissing up to Latinos. They can read demographic trends, so they’re busy trying to mend fences and convince Latino voters that they’re welcome in the big tent.

But, on the other hand, you have others who are doing what Republicans tend to do so well with Latinos: pissing them off. And how do they do that? A lot of it has to do with a single issue: immigration. Many Republicans have shamelessly used not just immigrants, but all Latinos as a convenient foil. They’ve made Latinos into scapegoats for a variety of social ills, and failed to deal honestly with the immigration issue. They’ve adopted an anti-Latino tone, and toyed with racism, nativism, and ethnocentrism. And finally, they’ve all but declared war on Latino birthrates, culture, and political participation.

The frustrating part for conservatives is that many Latino voters might be inclined to give at least some Republican candidates a fair hearing if not for the immigration issue. As President Reagan used to say, Latinos don’t have to be made into Republicans. Many of them already are Republicans but don’t know it. This is an inherently conservative community---on abortion, gay marriage, school choice, tax cuts, smaller government, strong defense, and other issues.

Under normal circumstances, this could spell trouble for Obama’s reelection. The president’s support among Latinos is a mile wide and an inch thick. Part of the reason is Obama’s campaign promise to make immigration reform a top priority, and his failure to deliver. Add in the fact that the Obama Administration has deported over 800,000 people since taking office, more than that of George W. Bush. It all adds up to a growing sense among many Latinos that Obama is playing them, and that he never had their interests at heart.

According to a recent poll by ImpreMedia and Latino Decisions, President Obama’s job approval rating among Latinos is still at 70 percent. Yet only 43 percent of Latino voters are sure they will vote for him next year. That’s bad news for Obama. He’ll need every vote he can get in what is expected to be a very close election.

And yet, Latinos are certainly no more likely to vote for a Republican. This is a community that craves and demands respect. And while it doesn’t like being ignored, it is even less fond of being treated like a piñata for the sake of politics. I don’t expect all Republicans to see the wasted opportunity that comes from alienating Latinos; we all have blind spots. But I do expect all Latino Republicans to see it. And so, I was taken aback when, in December, I got an up-close look at the great divide in the world of GOP Latino outreach.

I was in Washington, DC to attend a Hispanic forum sponsored by the Latino themed website, The Americano. Newt Gingrich, proprietor. Depending on your point of view, the purpose of the gathering was either to mend fences or to lay the groundwork for a possible presidential run by a former Speaker. (Disclosure: I contribute essays to The Americano and sit on its advisory board.)

The night before the event began, I helped organize with a Republican friend from Dallas about 30 people for a dinner gathering at the Heritage Foundation. I quickly assumed the role that I enjoy most, whether the audience is liberal or conservative: the skunk at the picnic. I was one of the first called on to speak, and used my time to make what I thought were two obvious points: first, Republican elected officials need to learn to talk about immigration in an honest, fair, and reasonable way that doesn’t further offend and enrage the rapidly growing Latino segment of the electorate. Second, the reason this situation needs triage in the first place is because too many Republicans can’t seem to approach the immigration issue without pandering to a vocal contingent of racists and nativists within their base.

Well, after that outburst, it was “Katy bar the door.” Most of the dozen or so people who spoke next had something to say about my remarks. Most also agreed that there was some merit to them and that Republicans were doing something wrong. There was also, however, some pushback.

Much of it came from one Beltway-based Cuban-American conservative who knew, it seemed, just enough about the immigration debate to fill a Dixie cup---with room left over for a little café con leche. He insisted that I was overstating the problem and pointed to the GOP’s rather respectable showing (all things considered)with Latino voters in the 2010 mid-term elections. According to exit polls, more than a third of voting Latinos cast their lots for Republican candidates. That took a lot of observers by surprise.

Still, there is no denying that Republicans are still leaking Latino support. Anytime you’re losing customers to your competitor at a rate of 2 to 1, you’re bleeding red ink. Besides, the places where Republicans did best with Latinos---states like New Mexico, Texas, and Florida---were also the places where the immigration issue was dormant. That wasn’t the case in California (where you had a GOP gubernatorial candidate under fire for hiring an illegal immigrant), or Arizona (where you had a firefight over a divisive immigration law that all but requires state and local police to dabble in profiling of Latinos) or Nevada (where you had a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who antagonized Latinos with a Willie Horton-style TV ad and then made light of the flap by suggesting that Latino high school students who raised concerns looked “Asian.”)

The dinner broke up with nothing resolved, but with the division among Latino conservatives laid bare. The next day, at the conference’s closing ceremony, I approached Gingrich and shared with him what I had discerned to be this difference of opinion between those who thought that the GOP had a problem with Latinos that could be fixed, and those who denied there was a problem to begin with.

“That’s a very astute observation,” Gingrich said. “If I were you, I’d write something about that. And, of course, you know that, unless you acknowledge a problem, you can’t fix it.”

We also agreed that President Obama and Congressional Democrats were rooting for the side that didn’t see a problem because it’s the surest formula for the Democratic Party to continue to enjoy huge margins of Latino support.

One more thing. When I was making the case that there were individuals within the Republican Party who were in denial about the fact that the GOP had alienated Latinos, Gingrich blurted out: “You mean, like Tom Tancredo.” Well, sort of. But Tancredo---the former Republican congressman from Colorado who spent years pandering to racists and nativists by warning about the perils of having to “press 1 for English”---is a special case. He went out of his way to pick on Latinos and to antagonize them. People like that are eventually revealed for who they are, and justly marginalized.

What I was talking about, in my conversation with Gingrich, were those conservatives who, while not themselves directly responsible for the poisoning of Latino-Republican relations, were utterly blind to it and in denial. Anyone who thinks that the GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latinos is obviously doesn’t know much about either.

And unfortunately, far from being on the margins, this seems to be the dominant view in the Republican establishment. If it were otherwise, there wouldn’t be a need for a forum like the one that was put on by The Americano. And there is.

One person who should have attended that event but didn’t is Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX. The San Antonio congressman is the author of The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and one of the fathers of the discredited “enforcement only” approach that says we can stop illegal immigration if we deport enough people, build enough walls, and hire enough Border Patrol agents. Smith is an immigration hardliner who is now Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. He opposes comprehensive immigration reform (what he calls “amnesty”), supports a moratorium on legal immigration, and opposes the “birthright citizenship” guaranteed to those born on U.S. soil, including the children of illegal immigrants.

The congressman is also a leader of the denial wing of the Republican Party. In an op-ed for the Washington Post just days before the Americano event, he claimed that, “the 2010 election actually paints a very bright picture of the Republican Party’s relations with this country’s growing Hispanic population.” He pointed to exit polls that suggested as much as 38 percent of Latinos voted for Republican candidates “despite widespread pre-election claims by advocates for illegal immigration that the Arizona law and a pro-rule-of-law stand would undercut Hispanic support for Republicans.” Smith also pointed to victories for Hispanic Republican candidates in Florida, Texas, Nevada and New Mexico and argued that, “the right way to attract Hispanic support is to emphasize our shared values.”

In other words: The Republican Party should do nothing and everything will be fine.

Smith is wrong on several fronts. For one thing, he somehow finds the temerity to suggest that he knows what does and doesn’t offend Latinos. You have to wonder if he would dare try that with African-Americans, Jewish-Americans or any other group with a history of staring down intolerance. For another, in referring to Latino Republicans like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, what Smith missed is that some of these individuals don’t share all the values you hear espoused by Smith and some of the other hardliners. Martinez came out against the Arizona immigration law while Rubio opposed changing the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Besides, Smith is using questionable figures. The polling firm Latino Decisions found that only 29 percent of Latinos voted Republican in the midterms. Either way, Democrats still hold a roughly 2-1 advantage. And in contests such as the U.S. Senate race in Nevada and the governor’s race in Arizona, cwhere the immigration issue was especially contentious because Republicans used it as a wedge, more than 80 percent of Latinos voted Democratic.

I pushed back against Smith in my syndicated column, and he pushed back by writing a letter to the editor and submitting it to the more than 120 newspapers that buy the column. So I wrote another column, and he fired off more letters. And thus was born my strategy: to keep Lamar Smith so busy writing defensive letters in response to my columns that he can’t do real damage by writing indefensible bills in Congress.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, other Republicans are starting to understand that individuals in their party have made a serious mistake in angering and alienating an ethnic group that now accounts for 16 percent of the population and which is on track to make up a third of the population by 2050. They include the trio that pulled together an organization called the Hispanic Leadership Network: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, and former U.S. Senator from Minnesota Norm Coleman. The initiative intends to engage “center-right” Latinos in the democratic process while encouraging Republican leaders to mend fences and address the concerns of Latino voters.

I was invited to participate on a panel at the January kick-off event in Miami. We were supposed to talk about Latinos and the media. But instead, the participants---CNN’s Alex Castellanos, television journalist Helen Aguirre, the Heritage Foundation’s David Gonzales, and myself---wound up in a spirited argument about just how damaged the relationship was between Latinos and Republicans. The theme all day had been that the damage was minimal and that all that was needed was a nip and tuck to make sure the GOP’s message got out to Latinos.

No, señor. The problem, I said, isn’t that the GOP’s message on immigration isn’t getting through to Latinos. It’s getting through loud and clear. The problem, I said, is that the message is toxic. Republicans propose simple solutions to a complicated problem, pander to racists, and frame the discussion in terms of “us vs them” with Latinos on the “them” side.

Those are the recurring demons that haunt the Republican Party when it comes to immigration. And so, the GOP doesn’t need a publicist. It needs an exorcist. And while it’s true that immigration is just one issue, it’s also a defining one because it reaffirms the perception that many Latinos already have of Republicans as racist, intolerant, and mean-spirited.

When the panel was over, Coleman approached me and asked how Republican candidates could get a fair shake from Latino voters in light of the schism over immigration and the spiteful way in which some Republicans handle the issue.

My response was that moderate Republicans must publicly denounce and distance themselves from those on the far right who dabble in racism and nativism aimed at Latinos. Otherwise, I said, the GOP doesn’t stand a chance of siphoning off enough Latino support to improve its electoral chances next year. And it will only get worse from there given demographics and the growth of the Latino electorate.

Coleman got it. And I know he got it because he proceeded to draw what I thought was a brilliant parallel. What I was asking for reminded him of what many Americans want and expect from moderate Muslim Americans---simply, at a minimum, for them to publicly condemn acts of terrorism and radical elements in their community. If the moderates won’t even do this much, he said, they wind up empowering the extremists and making a few bad apples seem like many.

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s precisely what moderate Republicans do when they keep quiet about radical elements in the GOP. They empower them and make the few seem like many. Once that happens, you can hardly blame Latino voters for turning away.

Yet, at the moment, Latinos seem intensely unhappy---in some cases, even angry---with Obama and the Democrats. The problem is not just that this administration has deported a record number of people. It’s that officials like Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano are going around the country bragging about those figures to make Team Obama look tough on immigration enforcement. That’s tantamount to rubbing our noses in it.

A lot of people are fed up, and they aren’t taking it anymore. Congressman Luis Gutierrez launched a 20-city tour of immigrant communities to pressure Obama to use his executive power to stop the deportations. The president has refused to do that, and immigration reform advocates and others have criticized him for it.

Obviously aware of the growing discontent among Latino voters, Obama called an April meeting at the White House of 70 prominent political, business, labor and community leaders. According to some of those who attended, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to achieving comprehensive immigration reform---if possible before the end of his first term. A bill will likely be drafted in the summer, proposed in the fall, and argued about in the winter. And, all the while, there will be all these stories in the media about how Obama can’t do immigration reform on his own and about how he needs some Republicans to join him.

And the trap will be set. Obama isn’t a good leader but he is a good campaigner. He knows exactly how most Republicans in Congress are going to react to the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform: badly. They’ll call it “amnesty” and accuse Democrats of excusing lawbreakers. They’ll propose more enforcement, and perhaps even a limit on legal immigration. They’ll turn the debate into one of “us vs them” and make it seem as if they’re the only ones who care about this country and its future. And the tone of this national dialogue will get meaner and shriller and more divisive.

Latinos will see this spectacle unfold from the bleachers, and, disillusioned or not, most of them will fall back in line behind Obama---not because they support him or believe in him but because they’re terrified of the alternative. Which is probably how the Democrats came up with the slogan: “Vote for us. We’re not Republicans.”

The joke on us is that this strategy might just work. President Obama could be reelected with decent Latino support despite having the worst record on immigration of any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower carried out “Operation Wetback” in the 1950’s. And Latino voters, having been written off by one party and taken for granted by the other, would continue their descent into political irrelevance.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a contributor to CNN.COM, a commentator on National Public Radio, and author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam).