07/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Troubled Crossing

When Senators Obama and McCain give the keynote addresses for the Sunday brunch (Obama) and Monday lunch (McCain) in San Diego at the fortieth anniversary convention of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., NCLR president Jane Murguia enacts a mini-drama that encapsulates the Latino vote in Election 2008. In closing her introduction of Senator Obama, Ms. Murguia asks the two thousand largely Hispanic brunchers in the ballroom of the San Diego Convention Center to join her in a warm welcome "to the new" -- Murguia catches herself, but the audience knows from her enthusiasm what she had been about to say -- president. The audience laughs and then laughs harder as Murguia stumbles on through "the new -- the next presumptive -- the presumptive" nominee. At least, presumably "nominee" is her noun, but the end of her sentence is drowned in the room's appreciative roar.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpgIt had already been clear that Obama has Ms. Murguia's vote. ("Senator Obama has reached out in many other ways to our community. . . . Latinos all over the country have been inspired by this historic moment. . . . One of the most frightening [sic] things about Senator Obama's campaign was the way it's energized so many young people. . . . In the last several years, Senator Obama has lived with us on a number of key issues.") Nevertheless, a day later Jane Murguia is more than cordial in her introduction of Senator McCain. "While we may not always agree on all the issues," she says, "he reached out early and often to us." She closes by saying, "Join me in a warm welcome to our next -- your presumptive nominee." Clearly, she has worked the stumble line into her remarks, and the lunchers, many of whom heard Obama the day before, laugh knowingly. Murguia's last line is a grace note, for most speakers wouldn't bother with a gaffe made earlier. It's an extra ounce of Latino hospitality for McCain.

So the Murguia two-step sums up the Hispanic vote in play during the two days of La Raza San Diego. Most of the attendees are going for Obama. But there is a level of respect for McCain that is not present among largely Democratic groups elsewhere. This translates into a certain amount of indecision, and that's what I find among the attendees with whom I speak. Tellingly, the second largest round of applause, for both Senators' speeches, comes when McCain says, "I also greatly admire Senator Hillary Clinton, and value her friendship." The Hispanic embrace of Hillary Clinton lingers and shapes the tentative rapprochement with Barack Obama.

Therefore, John McCain has an opening with Hispanic voters, but his inability to reach through to exploit it is the real story of La Raza San Diego. The Monday luncheon with McCain offers a number of surprises, the serendipity that makes the campaign trail so much fun. When the ballroom doors opened for the Obama brunch, there had been a stampede for the tables the likes of which I have never witnessed. (La Raza may have been remiss in planning, since the line, first-come-first-served, was twice as long as there were places.) At the McCain lunch, the guests, many of whom rushed the room the day before, are decorous -- thereby confirming either the ripple effect of leadership style or the gentle suasion of music, for the complete soundtrack of the James Cagney movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy" has been playing, ending with "Mary, Mary." As John McCain begins to speak, the same wild woman, a rogue Obama supporter, who had been screaming out on the sidewalk the day before, yells "Leave Iraq now!" from the back of the room. She continues to shout; McCain, ignoring her, forges on. Eventually, the Secret Service haul her off. This is not a promising beginning.

But surprise! surprise! Senator McCain delivers. Even though his remarks don't have Obama's rhetorical uplift, McCain's is a better speech because he freights it, sentence by sentence, with the force of his conviction and experience and passion for issues dear to La Raza. Slowly, he draws in the audience -- many of whom, remember, are either lukewarm Obama supporters or undecideds -- and manages a rhythm of applause through talking about help for small businesses, "many of them started by Latinas," promising to double the child deduction from $3500 to $7000, and praising La Raza's housing counseling programs. Now McCain reaps the reward of that trip to Colombia and Mexico that so many in the press and the party criticized. He gets so much applause there that he quips, "That's the Colombia-Mexico vote."

Earlier, McCain has inserted into his prepared remarks (the press always have a copy of these in advance, and candidates rarely stray far) a riff on Obama and his refusal to engage in joint town hall meetings. McCain often mentions the Obama snub, but today he goes further, implicitly accusing Obama of contributing to the low level of cable news discourse through his refusal of open debate. "I think Americans deserve better," McCain says, than "the frustrations with sound bites, the back-and-forths, the cable monster." McCain thinks that Obama and he should stand "side-by-side, the both of us," because "Americans want to know about us." Conjoining Senator Obama and the mediocrity of cable news is bold and outrageous, but the La Raza audience is accepting, likely because they do indeed want to know about both men. That's exactly why they've taken the time and trouble to stand in line for hours to get into the ballroom. "This is one of the most important campaigns in the history of America, and it should not be reduced to sound bites," McCain says. (Within the hour, waiting for my flight to Albuquerque in the San Diego airport, I see that CNN has reduced this riff to a sound bite.)

The moment is certainly important for McCain, who has much of the La Raza audience in hand. McCain knows that garnering a percentage of the Hispanic vote is a necessary component of an electoral win for him in November; he even jokes about his difficulties with these Democratic-leaning Hispanic constituencies, and his La Raza audience laughs with him. His speech ended, McCain decides to take questions from the lunch tables, and with this decision the comity and warmth he has engendered begin to dissipate. Every one of the five questions is about immigration, for this is the issue above all else that engages Hispanic voters. The first questioner, suspicious of McCain's record on immigration and praising Obama's, asks him to pledge to make immigration reform the top priority of his first year in the White House.

"I'll say to you again, we Democrats and Republicans had to take some tough votes. Senator Obama went out, at the request of the labor unions, and voted for the amendment that killed the legislation, and that's a fact. That's a fact, sir. That's the fact. Of course, it was my top priority, and will be my top priority. Otherwise I wouldn't have done what I did. I think my actions speak for themselves. My friends, why did we fail? Why did we fail not once but twice? That's because when we passed Amnesty in 1986, we said we would secure our borders, and we didn't. . . . We do need to have our borders secured. Which we can do in fairly rapid fashion. . . . It was my top priority then and will be my top priority tomorrow."

But the La Raza audience is having none of it. These are activists, by and large, and they know that Senator McCain backed away from his own legislation when he realized that so many Americans (and these would not be Hispanic Americans) are more concerned with border security than the rights of immigrants. The talk has turned dark, with McCain mentioning, more than once, the number of illegal immigrants who are criminals (two out of twelve million) and the problem of drug trafficking across the border. The following questions, in rapid succession, feed this darkness. A lady from the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families proclaims that she is ashamed of the raids that separate children from their parents. "Stop these inhumane raids!" she cries. And now the La Raza folk deliver their biggest applause in two days of speeches.

The event has suddenly caught fire. This is the moment that reporters live for. "With all due respect, you are talking about a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself," McCain replies. He wanders into a comment on the exploitation of the coyotes and the practice of drug dealers phoning border crossings into law enforcement so that hours later they bring their product in unhindered. The next questions, again from women, are about immigrant bashing among Republicans and the problems for students who are undocumented. Again McCain's reply: "I will enforce the existing laws of this country. We have to have our borders secure. We cannot penalize people who come here legally and wait legally." It's not that McCain comes across as unsympathetic; he calls, as he always does, for humane treatment of illegal immigrants. But he's like a cornered hedgehog, prickles and all. He's strayed from the mood of his audience and therefore the audience itself.

The last question is from a member of the Border Angels, who tells the story of a woman named Maria, who on her border crossing through the desert died in the arms of Jesus, her son Jesus. By this time, John McCain has lost a politician's feel for the moment and the sure sense to leave this comment alone. Instead, once again, McCain says, "The United States of America has to have secure borders. But we can address this issue in a humane fashion. We will make it a top priority. But we [you and I] just have to have a respectful disagreement."

John McCain loves respectful disagreements, for they are signifiers of honor. However, in standing on his principles, he has squandered the La Raza vote. In reality, he's not nearly the equal of Barack Obama as a politician. The two men's immigration policies are similar, but Obama weaves the need for tighter border security into a larger narrative. At his speech the day before, Obama said, "While we work to strengthen our borders, we need a practical solution for the problem of 12 million people who are here without documentation -- many of whom have lived and worked here for years." Hispanic audiences never like it when Senator Obama talks about the same path to citizenship as McCain proposes. At La Raza Obama said, "Yes, they [illegals] broke the law. And we should not excuse that. We should require them to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for citizenship -- behind those who came here legally."

Leaving the Obama event, a group of young men were talking about Obama's remarks. "How is somebody illegal going to find the money for a fine?" one of them said. They were skeptical of the plan. But likely these young men will vote for Obama. Not only is he the better politician, canny enough not to rub the least palatable aspect of a policy into the recipients' faces. (John McCain's insistence to Hispanic voters on the primacy of border security may indicate that he has a bit of a death wish.) But more importantly, Barack Obama has the instinct for salving intractable problems. At La Raza, as always on the campaign trail, he addressed his Hispanic audience as Americans first. Not only is this how Hispanics see themselves -- and this is a group of constituencies who never pride themselves on having Canadian or EU passports as well as American ones. But also this is the way to take an exacerbating issue to the public square where people can meet and, according to Obama, work together. "We walked together on the streets," he says to La Raza. "And when I'm President, I'll be asking many of you to serve at every level of government." Together, he says, we will meet the challenges we face. By calling people to the higher ground of togetherness, which is a flattering appeal to people's better selves, Obama defuses incendiary issues like immigration. This is why he will, in the end, have Hispanic American votes.