Post-election analysis is in full force and the prominent role of the overwhelmingly pro-Obama Hispanic vote is front and center. From hues and cries (Bill O'Reilly) to demographic tut-tutting (Juan Williams' "Obama's Daunting Demographic Message for the GOP"), pundits and columnists alike are opining on how Republicans have "lost the country," or at least marginalized their chances for national governance by alienating Hispanics. The core issue? Immigration reform.
Speaker John Boehner and commentator Sean Hannity see a newfound opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform just days after the election (leaving one to wonder if that agenda item would be at the top of the list in a Romney win). Many commentators are equating the Republican's Hispanic "problem" with immigration and specifically cite Mitt Romney's move to the right of Gov. Rick Perry on the topic during the primary debates as the critical moment of loss. But immigration isn't the problem. In fact, when polled, Hispanics have a varied view of immigration reform, including significant percentages of Hispanics who are against amnesty programs without tighter border protections. Another issue is at work here is an "us vs. them" mentality displayed through language and mindset. Two specific moments reflected this mindset from Gov. Romney during the election:
• When in Israel, Romney compared Israeli culture to Palestinian culture, arguing for the superiority of Israeli culture vis a vis economic development. When clarifying this perspective, his team said he had not singled out the Palestinians but had also cited other "countries that are near or next to each other" that have large economic gaps, citing "Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States." It is unlikely that Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans (who make up more than 64 percent of American Hispanics) missed the implication of this remark.
• In Romney's now infamous closed-door "47 percent" donor comments he mentioned his birth in Mexico and how he would have a likelier chance of winning if he were of Mexican descent. While perhaps intended as innocuous politically incorrect humor to a select audience, it underlies two points -- they (Mexicans) are different than me and they vote on the basis of monolithic ethnic identity. The Mexican Americans that elected Bush and the 40 percent of Hispanics who supported Republicans in 2004 might disagree.
The Republican brand, deserving or not, comes with an "us vs. them" perception regarding Hispanics. Add to this mix a political opponent who is mercilessly vilifying your candidate as an out-of-touch plutocrat and unforced errors like comments of this nature don't help.
The language and mindset of "us vs. them" instead of "we" is both contrary to the core Hispanic value of a collectivist worldview (a view ironically shared by conservative Catholics and other Christians), it's also contrary to the trend of rising Hispanic pride. The underlying assumption is of ethnic superiority, which is exclusionary by definition.
Many Republicans deeply disavow this assumption and find it antithetical to Party principles and their personal morality. Sen. Marco Rubio's speech was largely considered the brightest spot of the GOP Convention. His personal narrative of being the son of working-class parents, working hard, and rising above spoke to the American Dream. It resonates broadly to many Americans, and deeply to Hispanic Americans. Charles Krauthammer's post-election commentary speaks to the ongoing potential of building a Republican/Hispanic bloc based on their shared affinities for family, religion and other conservative social issues. Michael Gerson points to messaging about equal opportunity and economic mobility. All of these perspectives have merit and may give the Republicans more relevance with Hispanic voters.
Those commentators who focus on immigration and not "us vs. them" mindsets, however, are getting it wrong. Because immigration is a national issue, it is often in the spotlight. As mentioned, Hispanic opinion polling demonstrates a diversity of opinion on the topic. Immigration has become a proxy for cultural exclusion (can you imagine, for example, Hispanics rallying around liberal immigration of Vietnamese?). To capture the electoral support that George W. Bush received requires a deeper focus on mindset and language, and a conscious effort to include Hispanics in the "United we Stand" ideal.
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