By Ruben Navarrette
San Diego Union-Tribune
November 22, 2008 6:00 AM
Some Republicans are saying the party was on a fool's errand trying to win over Latinos.
In this election, most Latinos voted for the Democratic nominee for president, just as they have in every presidential election since they helped elect John Kennedy in 1960. There have been elections where Democrats ran away with the Hispanic vote (i.e., Bill Clinton) and others where they were barely able to gain a majority (i.e., John Kerry).
When it comes to winning over Latinos, Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. The former Illinois senator received 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, while Clinton got 72 percent in his 1996 re-election bid. Still, it was an impressive showing for the president-elect.
Obama also had the benefit of GOP mistakes. Republicans who second-guess their party's Hispanic outreach efforts have short memories.
The real foolishness occurred earlier, when some decided to pander to nativists at the cost of alienating a community that adds a million people to the voter rolls every four years.
In fact, a lot of the GOP faithful are worried that - given changing demographics - they may never win another presidential election if they don't make peace with Latinos. According to census estimates, Hispanics will make up a quarter of the U.S. population by 2042. Those are likely to be dark days for the Republican Party unless it can find a way to appeal to Hispanic voters.
During a recent appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio show, neoconservative commentator John Podhoretz described the GOP's anti-immigrant saber-rattling as a "political and demographic disaster" for Republicans.
You're probably thinking the issue isn't immigration but illegal immigration. But that doesn't hold up. Many people like to tell themselves they're opposed only to illegal immigration, but when they list the reasons, it usually boils down to fear of a changing culture. It's not just illegal immigrants who are bringing about those changes. It's also legal residents and U.S.-born Latinos.
And so, the debate has taken on a sweeping anti-Hispanic flavor. When Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado - who, by the way, I am convinced is a secret agent for the Democrats - called Miami a "Third World country," it was Cuban-Americans who took offense.
Think about it. Technically, immigration isn't their fight. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 gives Cuban immigrants a red carpet to the United States, provided they make it to shore. But because of the impolitic and imprecise rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate, many Cuban-Americans are jumping into the fray.
Cuban-Americans used to be a solidly Republican constituency. But in this election, Obama made significant inroads, especially with young Cuban-Americans. For that, Obama should remember to thank Tancredo and the other GOP culture warriors.
Podhoretz is right. "Disaster" is a good word for what is lurking around the corner for Republicans if they don't wise up and change their ways.
Every week, I hear from dozens of Latinos who say they don't feel welcome in the Republican Party, and they resent it - even though many of them confess to having doubts about the Democrats. In the end, they find their doubts easier to overcome than their resentments.
I'm often asked by local Republican leaders around the country what the party can do to stop the hemorrhaging. Many assume it would take some sort of extreme makeover and the complete renunciation of everything for which their party stands.
That's ridiculous. It's what the Republicans stand for that represents the GOP's best hope at attracting Latinos. Empowering individuals and promoting values such as personal responsibility work in their favor. So do policies that lower taxes, strengthen the military, make schools more accountable and protect the homeland.
As for the thorny immigration issue, contrary to what many conservatives assume, it's not that Latinos want an open border. They don't. Most Latinos recognize that the United States has the responsibility to protect its sovereignty. They don't like the idea of building more walls and fences, but most of them have no problem with adding more Border Patrol agents and giving them the best equipment to do their jobs. What Latinos object to is the tone of the debate. They've had their fill of ugliness, racism, hypocrisy and falsehoods spread by opportunistic politicians offering nothing more than simplistic solutions and overheated rhetoric.
That sort of thing might have helped the GOP win a few battles here and there. But it ensures Republicans will lose the war.
Contact San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette at email@example.com.