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Wooing Latinos: How Far Will Bush Go?

By Richard S. Dunham and Alexandra Starr

July 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 McGraw-Hill, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As trial balloons go, it ranked right up there with the Hindenburg. Only hours after the White House leaked word that President Bush might grant amnesty to some 3 million Mexicans illegally residing in the U.S., the Administration began backtracking in the face of vehement opposition from conservatives. What the President actually has in mind, the Bushies now say, is a traditional form of limited amnesty.

Is this retreat cause for gloom at La Casa Blanca? Hardly. Just by broaching the idea of a massive outreach proposal for Latinos, Bush has demonstrated two things: that he gave due consideration to Mexican President Vicente Fox's call for an open-border policy, and that he's serious about an ardent pursuit of the Hispanic vote.

Fact is, without a Hispanic strategy, Republicans face serious problems. Despite hailing from Texas and speaking passable Spanish, Bush received just a third of Latino votes in 2000. White House political guru Karl Rove believes it is essential to up his boss's support from the nation's fastest-growing minority group in a 2004 reelection bid. Without improving his standing with this constituency, Bush could face defeat in several closely contested states that he carried last year, including Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.

Not surprisingly, the drive for Hispanic votes has been extensive. Bush delivered the first weekly Presidential radio address in Spanish, ordered an end to U.S. Navy bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , emphasized his opposition to English-only initiatives, and put more Latinos in top jobs than any Administration, among them White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and Housing Secretary Mel Martinez.

Although many of Bush's actions could be seen as symbolic, his backing for liberalized immigration has policy implications that could generate goodwill with Hispanics. ``Politically, this is a stroke of genius,'' says Andy Hernandez, a political scientist at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. ``This gives the President a foot in the door into the Latino community.''

Still, the strategy has risks. For one thing, the Hispanic population is not monolithic. If he is seen as catering to those of Mexican origin, Bush could create a backlash among other Latinos. ``From a social justice perspective, this makes no sense,'' says Rudolfo de la Garza, vice-president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Hispanic think tank in Claremont, Calif. ``Other Latino groups will protest.'' And Democrats already are accusing Bush of blatant pandering. COURT TEST. While Bush may come off as personally simpatico to Latinos, political opponents insist he doesn't speak their language on issues such as gun control, affirmative action, and social spending. No question, Bush could stand some improvement with Spanish-speaking voters. A June Pew Research Center survey found that 42% of Latinos approved of his job performance, vs. 50% for all Americans.

The ultimate gesture? That could be the appointment of a Hispanic to the Supreme Court. Gonzales is sure to be on the short list, but already the Right is balking. With pro-choice Justice David Souter as a constant reminder, conservatives will only back nominees who have expressly opposed abortion rights. That rules out Gonzales, who, as a Texas Supreme Court justice, voted against anti-abortion forces in a case involving parental consent for Texas abortions. Whether El Presidente is willing to stick with Gonzales or picks another Hispanic like pro-life U.S. Appeals Court Judge Emilio M. Garza will reveal how genuine his Latino outreach truly is.

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