Sí, es un problema — y una oportunidad muy grande. Muy, may I affirm?
That’s provided you’re conservative and hopeful of swinging America’s fast-multiplying Hispanic population your way. Not for the cynical, self-serving purpose of stroking Hispanic sensibilities vigorously enough to capitalize on Hispanic votes — the preferred Democratic approach, as we know, regarding black voters. The main idea here for conservatives, I think, is to integrate as many Hispanic Americans as possible into the conspiracy to keep America free of suffocating government regulations and disintegrating cultural norms.
As Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whose sensitivities proceed partly from his relationships with the state’s large Hispanic population, has put it: “If you believe in the conservative philosophy as I do, it would be incredibly stupid over the long haul to ignore the burgeoning Hispanic vote. They will be the swing voters in the swing states.”
The job as described by Bush, speaking in January at a conference for Hispanic conservatives, should be doable: hardly a piece of Mexican pastry but doable, not to mention logical as all get-out.
We recall, do we not, Sen. Harry Reid’s immortal words to a gathering of Nevada Hispanics in August 2010. Getting right in the audience’s face, El Señor Reid shared what he took to be a common understanding. “I don’t know,” he confided, “how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, okay? Do I need to say more?” It is not reported whether the senator winked or not. He might as well have.
We likewise remember President Obama’s contribution to the dispiriting debate concerning Hispanic political participation. In a Univision interview last October 25, he enjoined viewers to remember that “If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re going to punish our enemies,’… then I think it’s going to be harder.” What a droll way of according conservatives a pedestal in the Hall of Ill Fame! Republicans jumped on the slur, and Obama had to back off slightly, but as we all know, the breeding of racial rivalry is a well-vetted Democratic campaign tactic.
The myth that Reid and Obama both seek consciously to perpetrate and perpetuate is of the poor, downtrodden Hispanic, his hands wrinkled with care and toil, his shoulders bent to the ground, awaiting the upward tug of a Democratic hand. In the end, Senator Reid procured 63 percent of the Nevada Hispanic vote — enough to dispose narrowly of an erratic Republican opponent, Sharron Angle. Yet, irony of ironies, Reid’s son Rory, running for governor, lost to Brian Sandoval, who, with nearly two-thirds white support, became one of three conservative Republican Hispanics elected in high-profile races last year. The other two: Marco Rubio in Florida and Susana Martinez in New Mexico. Meantime, Idaho, Texas, Florida, and Washington sent to the U.S. House a total of five new Hispanics who also happen to be conservative.
The outlook for Hispanic embrace of conservative ideas and candidates seems brighter than ever before — in part because relatively few Anglos have troubled to look behind the stereotype of the smoldering-eyed Latino labor agitator; partly because there once seemed better payoff in strategies to lure evangelical Christians than in plans for the political seduction of foreigners or first-generation Americans.
NO MORE, ONE HOPES. Some 47 million Hispanics now live in the United States — almost 15 percent of the total population. Of these, a survey by the Pew Hispanic Forum in October 2010 estimates 38 percent to be immigrants. Of this latter category, an estimated 19 percent (something over 11 million) are what we once called illegal aliens but now generally refer to as undocumented workers — accent perhaps on the word “workers.”
Work they do — in factories, on construction sites, in homes and hotels and offices, on lawn-cutting crews, on hog and poultry farms. They work because America has more work to be done than is available in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, or Ecuador, with native-born Americans more indisposed than formerly to low-paying trades and occupations. The work ethic, in other words, informs the Hispanic voter, actual or potential. A building contractor with whom my wife and I were recently discussing the integrity of construction workers told us, “It’s whites who steal from you on the job site. The Hispanics have their heads down working to make money to send somewhere or the other.” I wouldn’t call that a dispositive observation on the Hispanic orientation toward work, but it gets you to thinking. A willing worker, conservatives tend to understand, is susceptible to opportunities for pay and reward such as the free market provides out of all proportion to those occurring under government auspices and control. This understanding, one might well deduce, gives conservative candidates a leg up in the quest for private sector growth.
The general Hispanic population likewise has a relatively strong commitment to religion and family. I am uncertain how far we are to push this particular point, which I have heard advanced in a vague way for years, without statistical underpinning. I think modern Anglos, looking anxiously at the evaporation of their own cultural norms, have a bent for romanticizing the attachments and outlooks of others who seem at least from the outside to “have it all together.” We know, against this cultural bent, that the pregnancy rate among Hispanic teens exceeds that for whites as the rate among blacks exceeds that for Hispanics. We know that more Hispanics drop out of high school than do whites or blacks. Yet something else we know (thanks to a Pew Forum survey) is that nearly two-thirds of older Hispanics oppose abortion — the other side of this particular coin being lighter opposition (43 percent) among younger Hispanics. When the Texas senate, in February, approved a bill requiring the offer of a sonogram view of her child to a woman considering abortion, three Hispanic Democrats, representing heavily Hispanic South Texas districts, voted with the Anglo Republican majority.
To pursue further the question of philosophical orientation, a poll more than a year ago asserted that 54 percent of Texas Hispanics call themselves conservative, as against 18 percent who self-identify as liberal or progressive. Maybe so, to judge from how things went at the polls in Texas last November. Four Hispanic Republicans won state house seats in Hispanic territory. Three of the Democratic losers were likewise Hispanic. With the election over, along came Rep. Aaron Peña, a Democrat, to cross over to the Republican side due to what he identified as the overlap of his own views with those of the GOP.
Of particular note, from this same standpoint, was the contest in formerly Anglo-Czech-Slovak Williamson County, home base for Dell Computer, lying just north of Austin, where a Hispanic woman, Diana Maldonado, two years earlier wrested the seat from a white man. In 2010, one Larry Gonzales wrested it back for the GOP. Nobody — Anglo, Hispanic, or what-not — seemed to notice anything but the philosophical and partisan divide between the two candidates. Walloping the Democrats, rather than fretting over ethnic identity, turned out to be the big thing.
NOT THAT HISPANIC VOTES can be likened to ripe pears waiting to fall into the aprons of eager Republicans shaking the tree. In 2008, Barack Obama received two-thirds of the Hispanic vote. A national House exit poll in 2010 suggested that 60 percent of Latinos voted Democratic. In fact, something had happened since 2006, when exit polls put the Hispanic vote at 69 percent Democratic. Was that due in part at least to the economic mess, coupled with Democratic failure to create jobs? Whatever the case, Republicans and conservatives sense for 2012 an opportunity, not so much to forge a grand alliance with Latinos — such a process will take time — as to illustrate what Aaron Peña figured out for himself, namely, the general congruence of Hispanic values and Republican policies.
I said the “general” congruence. We need to be careful when moving from the general to the particular, because GOP-Hispanic overlap isn’t total by any means. What are we going to do about immigration? That one’s a doozy. Established Democratic policy is to harangue Republicans for “nativism” and such like, because, well, there’s indeed some nativism even among, let us say, Texans long used to collaboration and friendship with Mexicans, not to mention a well-formed attachment to margaritas and fajitas. The prospect of waking up to discover immigration has made one a member of an ethnic minority is not quickly embraced.
Immigration policy clearly has to be rationalized. “There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty,” as Newt Gingrich, with more than his normal quota of perspicacity, has put the matter: one problem being lack of general agreement on how to proceed. While we await clarity, there is value in Jeb Bush’s counsel: “We share very common values, but if you send a signal of ‘them’ and ‘us,’ then you’re not going to get the desired results. I watch TV; sometimes I’m turned off by the tone, even though I might agree with a particular view.” The nascent argument over whether the 14th Amendment confers citizenship on all who are born here, including the children of illegal immigrants, strikes me as a non-starter from just about any perspective, including practicability. Anyone who supposes at this very late date that a very diverse American population will unite in repudiation of birth-citizenship will not benefit greatly, let us say, from uncorking a second bottle of chardonnay. We have to find better ways of coming at an unmistakable problem and challenge.
On the other hand, some polls show immigration to be a matter of smaller concern to Hispanics already residing here than sometimes we are led to think in consequence of liberal (and occasionally conservative) rabble-rousing. Jobs, education, and health seem the top concerns. “The irony,” says Israel Ortega of the Heritage Foundation, “is that Hispanics are more concerned about the economy and the stubborn employment rate… than they are about illegal immigration.” Democrats sought to preempt the last concern-health-by appearing to guarantee to us all, under Obamacare, the longevity and good health of Moses. (See Deut. 34:7 if you’re wondering.) Conservatives know the built-in costs of Medicaid, on which a large percentage of Hispanics relies, have to be reduced. The trick, a difficult one, is to implement free market-oriented reforms that confer the additional benefit of blocking Democratic attempts to steal an entire voting bloc.
On jobs and schools, conservatives have the upper hand, one would think. They know and esteem the arguments for smaller government and lighter regulation. The arguments for educational reform need infinitely more attention. A potential model is Florida, whose A+ Plan, shaped and implemented in the Bush years, has produced major gains for black as well as Hispanic students through emphasis on accountability and parental choice. Among the techniques: alternate teacher certification, better literacy instruction, curtailment of social promotion for the illiterate, and vouchers for students with disabilities. According to Matthew Ladner, in the Hoover Institution’s Education Next publication, “Average NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] reading scores for Hispanic students in Florida (on a test conducted in English, mind you) is now higher than the overall average scores (for students from all racial and ethnic groups)” of 30 other states.
IN SUM: The notion that Hispanics in substantial numbers can’t be brought to embrace basic conservative tenets and allegiances could be the most ruinous idea ever to flit through conservative minds at a very dicey moment in our nation’s history. All conservatives have to do to miss the tide is to nod understandingly when Harry Reid or such like pronounces with profound conviction on the unbreakable link between Democratic welfarist policies and America’s fastest-growing population segment. If conservatives, under that kind of challenge, don’t believe in the salability of their own policies, all I can say, is ¡ay, de mí!