August 4, 2000
By James E. Garcia
The GOP is making headway with Latino voters these days. That's undeniable. But more than a few Latino politicos will tell you this is inherently bad.
If you are a "Latino Republican," they say, you are a vendido, a sell out. Maybe, maybe not.
Those who know me count me among the crowd well to the left of George W. Bush and company. It's a fair assessment. I'm even to the left of Bill Clinton and company. In other words, the GOP won't be signing me up anytime soon.
All of that said, I do see a silver lining in the incipient, shift by a growing number of Latinos to the GOP's ranks.
The polls don't articulate this, but I believe that if there is such a thing as a kinder, gentler "21st Century Republican Party," as one conservative pundit recently described it, then it's epitomized by its newest recruits, Latinos.
The good news for the Latino community is that the Latinos who are joining the GOP are having a moderating affect on the party. When Latino Republicans say, "George W. Bush is not Pete Wilson," they're saying, "Don't expect me to stick with this party if it starts to bash immigrants."
If Latino Republicans say, "Let's give school vouchers a chance." They're more often than not mean, "Let's find a way to improve the quality of low-performing schools that aren't doing a very good job of teaching our children what they need to learn."
Latino Republicans, not Bush, along with suburban white women and Independents are putting the "compassion" into "compassionate conservatism."
For the past couple of years, the GOP has been working feverishly to convince swing voters that they're really not that mean. Time and again, Latino Republicans will tell you, even if you don't ask, that George W. Bush is nothing like ex-California Gov. Pete Wilson the Genghis Khan of the GOP's scorched-earth, anti-immigrant crusades of the 1990s.
True, Wilson's strategy of blaming his state's economic woes on powerless immigrants, namely Latino immigrants, did get him reelected in 1994. But it also made Latinos mad.
And the community got even madder when Newt Gingrich and company followed up on the Wilsonian Principle inspire your core constituency by demonizing the weak and passed a slew of punitive, anti-immigrant and anti-poor measures in Congress. (President Clinton, it's worth noting, didn't do a lot to stand in the way of the Republican onslaught. He was looking to get reelected in 1996.)
The Republicans backed off, however, as soon as they realized that an angry Latino constituency is an active Latino constituency. Wilson's willingness to bash Latino immigrants ultimately backfired by inspiring hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Latinos especially recently naturalized citizens, to register to vote. And vote they did for Democrats.
In 1996, more than 70 percent of Latino voters backed Clinton's reelection. And Latinos voted again in droves for Democratic candidates during the 1998 elections.
Now fast forward to Campaign 2000: Bush and Gore are locked in a neck-and-neck race for the presidency. Both campaigns know they'll need every swing vote they can get to win in November. And Latino voters are a vital part of that equation.
There are other dynamics at work. The Latino voting-age population has reached critical mass. Even a moderate election day turnout among Latino voters could make a difference in a close race Illinois and Florida quickly come to mind. There also are important state and federal legislative races to consider.
For the Republicans, the good news is that the Latino community has a burgeoning middle-class largely rooted in conservative social and cultural values.
But like any true hierarchy, it's the managers who make the decisions. And without flexing their political and economic clout, Latinos will never gain enough power in Democratic or Republican circles to assume the power broker roles.
So, "Latino Republicans" can be a good thing. If nothing else, they show the Democrats that Latino votes cannot be taken for granted. Latino Independents or Green Party members would move the community even a step further.
In the end, public policy should be based on what is good for the public at large, all of the public. The guiding moral principle of this nation should be people-ism not liberalism or conservatism.
If Latinos can moderate the Republican Party, humanize it, make it truly more compassionate than it has been, then our community, and the nation as a whole, will be better off.
Garcia is editor and publisher of www.politicomagazine.com. E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.