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Angels In The Marble?
September 8, 2001
George Bush's Latino strategy makes sense - but not for the reasons you might think
IT SHOULD come as no surprise that George Bush has chosen the Mexican president for the honour of an invitation to his first state dinner. Vicente Fox has everything that Mr Bush seeks in a foreign leader. He owns a ranch; he likes wearing cowboy boots; he rules a country with an 800-mile border with Texas; he gives Mr Bush a chance to show off his only foreign language; and, most important, he helps Mr Bush endear himself to the fastest-growing group of voters in America, Latinos.
Mr Bush's re-election recipe is straightforward enough: take the conservative base and add new constituencies - such as Catholics, wired workers, suburban women, the young and Latinos. Mr Bush's strategist-in-chief, Karl Rove, regards Latinos as a particularly important new ingredient. They are now the biggest ethnic minority in the country. They do not have the legacy of the civil-rights movement to tie them to the Democratic Party, in the way that blacks have. They are usually cultural conservatives. And they like working in the private sector.
Benjamin Disraeli, the Times once famously wrote, saw the conservative voter in the working man just as the sculptor sees "the angel in the marble". Mr Bush sees the Republican in the Latino in much the same way. Hence Mr Bush's enthusiasm both for giving an amnesty to the 3m or more Mexicans living in America illegally, and also for a guest-worker programme. Hence, too, his hints about appointing Alberto Gonzales, a White House legal counsel, to the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. And hence his distinct lack of enthusiasm for such right-wing shibboleths as scrapping affirmative action and bilingual education. Mr Rove was behind the decision to stop bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , to the navy's fury. Now he may use Phil Gramm's retirement in 2002 to get a Latino Republican, Henry Bonilla, into the Senate.
But there are problems with Mr Bush's electoral arithmetic. Mr Bush's lieutenants are not so much advancing into new territory as desperately trying to recapture old. In the 1980s the Republicans were making steady gains among Latinos, particularly among the middle classes. But the numbers plunged when the national Republican Party embraced the anti-immigration cause - and they went into free-fall when the Californian Republican Party embraced a ballot initiative that tried to deny social services to illegal immigrants.
Moreover, even if Mr Bush succeeds in expunging this bitter legacy, there is still no guarantee that the Latinos will embrace Republicanism, at least as long as Mr Bush is around. Latinos may be culturally conservative but, for the time being at least, they are also overwhelmingly working-class. Mr Bush came within three points of beating Al Gore among Latinos who earn $60,000 or more, but he lost by 70% to 29% among the much larger groups of Latinos who earn under $40,000. All in all, Latino voters favoured Mr Gore by 65% to Mr Bush's 35%. Of the 19 Latino congressmen, 18 are Democrats.
There are also doubts about Mr Bush's tactics. The amnesty scheme, which Mr Fox now wants agreed this year, raises all sorts of problems. What about non-Mexican Hispanics, who are excluded? And what happens if Mr Bush is forced to back down? Mr Gramm, normally a staunch supporter, spoke for many Republicans when he called the amnesty idea "very bad policy" which "rewards lawlessness". Many Latinos who spent years getting into the country legally have no truck with queue-jumpers. The chairman of the congressional Hispanic caucus, Silvestre Reyes, made his professional reputation as a border-patrol official who helped to design Operation Hold-the-Line.
There is equally no guarantee that buddying up to Mr Fox is a good way of wooing Latinos. Many Mexican-Americans have come to the United States precisely because they want to get away from the regime back home. Most are sensitive to any implication that their real loyalties lie with Mexico rather than their adopted country. Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles writer, points out that when the Mexicans raised a huge flag in Ciudad Juarez a few years ago, the people who were most keen on raising an equally huge American flag on the Texan side of the border were Mexican-Americans.
So is Mr Bush's Latino drive a waste of time? Not at all - for two reasons. First, although it might not win many votes as a short-term offensive strategy, it works much better as a defensive long-term one. Giving the Latinos the cold shoulder now could turn a group which will constitute a quarter of the population by 2050 into loyal Democrats. The signs are that Latinos are moving, as Italians did before them, into the suburbs and into the ranks of the middle-class. A little gentle wooing now - combined with some big gestures such as appointing a Latino to the Supreme Court - could pay off in the long-term. It took a long time for Disraeli's strategy to pay off, but it did so handsomely in the end when millions of working-class Britons were happy to vote Conservative.
Second, Mr Bush's strategy does have an immediate pay-off - with moderate white middle-class voters. Just as Disraeli's "one-nation" conservatism softened his party's image, Mr Bush's relative success among Latinos is vital to his strategy of repositioning his party as a party of inclusiveness and optimism rather than intolerance and reaction. The votes he won from Latinos when he was governor of Texas helped to prove that he was a different sort of Republican. By reaching out to them again now, he increases the Republican Party's appeal to moderates, younger voters and soccer moms. Any Republican who doubts this notion need only glance across the Atlantic to see the dismal fate of Disraeli's Conservative successors in Britain. Their failure to embrace Britain's various minorities, from homosexuals to blacks, has helped to alienate the party from the white middle-class majority that it claims to represent. At least, Mr Bush's one-nation strategy should shield his party from that fate.