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Tongue Tied: The GOP Does Outreach Wrong

By Raul Damas

August 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 NATIONAL REVIEW. All rights reserved. 

Anyone who thinks bipartisanship is dead should check out the political parties' efforts to attract Latino voters.

Lately it seems like Democrats and Republicans have become their own best competition in the race to attract the nation's growing Latino-voter population.

Starting with the Democrats, who consider the Latino vote a divine right, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt recently stated that they'd let their "record with Hispanics speak for itself."

Unfortunately that "record," as journalist Ruben Navarrette pointed out, speaks of fierce opposition to school vouchers, NAFTA, and Mexican trucks on U.S. highways. And Democrat support for amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants only appeared on their "record" once Republicans proved the political coast was clear.

Not only did Gephardt reveal that Democrats are clueless and spineless, he effectively underscored a series of Republican policy victories with Latino voters.

Bipartisanship, indeed.

Not to be left out, however, Republicans continue to suffer from a schizophrenic Latino outreach.

While it is generally accepted that Republican efforts to attract Latino voters easily outpace the Democrats', it has come at the cost of severe criticism from within the party itself. If Republican outreach efforts are to go on and expand, there needs to be an understanding within the party.

There are two basic Republican attitudes toward Latino outreach, divided between active and passive political styles – not ideology. There is little disagreement over whether or not Latinos would be a welcome addition to the party; the argument is over how that goal should be achieved.

Politically conservative Republicans believe the only course of action is no action. According to them, Latinos should see the inherent value of the Republican message and vote accordingly.

The opposing view of Latino outreach – held by most of those tasked with getting Latino votes – stresses active engagement of Latino voters. Oftentimes this includes Spanish-language communications and fine-tuned messages.

The recent furor over the Spanish-language release of Senator Bill Frist's book on bioterrorism illustrates this split.

Frist, a Republican holding a 100-percent rating from the American Conservative Union, penned an expert book providing families with useful information about bioterrorism. Almost immediately afterwards, he was attacked by fellow conservatives for being "cruel" and "enabling people to remain in dependency, by not forcing them to learn to speak and read English."


The book is a terrorism survival guide for American families.

Are conservatives telling Latinos that if you can't read English "you're on your own?" Of course not. Is that what it sounds like? Afraid so.

Like most other conservatives, I strongly support English-immersion education and believe English is the only way to succeed in America.

Like President Bush, however, I also realize that the only way to bring Latinos into mainstream America is through the Republican party. Democrats have no interest in Latinos learning English and participating in the American Dream – that would keep them from needing or wanting government handouts and condescending legislation.

So how do we do this? We communicate our message loud and clear, in the right language, via the right channels.

The alternative is to wait until every Latino learns English on his own. Of course, by then the Republican party and the Green party will be co-plaintiffs in their lawsuit for inclusion in presidential debates.

No thank you. The Republican message is too important to America and its Latino population for it to be delayed.

From President Bush's Spanish radio addresses and speeches to the Republican National Committee's TV show Abriendo Caminos, Spanish-language communications have already become the hallmark of Republican Hispanic-outreach success.

Republican issues and ideas are only as effective as the medium through which they are delivered. Trying to get Latino votes by only using English is like running a race with only one leg.

And in this race, Democrats are at a clear disadvantage. Their record with Latinos is a disgrace and they face a president who already knew enough about Latino politics upon arriving in office to give his first national interview to Univision, a Spanish-language station. Since then, George W. Bush has worked to redefine the Republican party for the next generation of Americans and he has done so in English and Spanish.

Intra-party squabbles are essential to a healthy political organization. But when those squabbles help the opposition more than the party, it's time to rethink one's strategy.

Spanish-language radio ads, TV spots, and campaign literature are far from a destructive form of pandering. For a large part of this country, they are the only tickets to the American dream they are likely to receive.

Raul Damas is director of operations at Opiniones Latinas, a polling and strategy firm specializing in America's Hispanic population.

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