Wednesday, January 16, 2008

As Hispanic-Heavy Primaries Near, Will Immigrant-Bashing Stop?

Has the air gone out of the anti-immigrant windbags? There is evidence the last couple of weeks that Yes, maybe.

The loudest immigrant basher, Tom Tancredo, dropped out of the race. The noisiest huffer and puffer among candidates with a realistic shot, Mitt Romney, learned that peddling fear of immigrants didn’t help him break out of the middle of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, and was not much of a factor in his win in Michigan.

And the only Republican who has not used immigration as a wedge issue, John McCain, won in New Hampshire. He won after being all but Officially Pronounced Dead last summer when he refused to scurry toward Tancredoness along with most of the rest of his party (it must be said in all fairness that another notable non-scurrier, for everything else he has done to make the world a worse place to live, is George W. Bush).

Meanwhile, over at the Dems, candidates have been so busy debating whether it is harder to run as a black man than as a woman that they have yet to discover what a “Hispanic” is, beyond the ritual taco munch on the campaign trail.

Up next: South Carolina January 26, Florida January 29, and “Super Duper” Tuesday February 5.

Clinton, Obama and Edwards are unlikely to become excited about Hispanic voters in South Carolina, where there are few; all three are assiduously boycotting Florida (while still praying for a good showing) because the Democratic National Committee did not like the early date for the state’s primary.

But for the GOP, South Carolina provides an opportunity for the return of pandering to xenophobes

The state is not in want of GOP hard-liners alarmed at the foreign hordes intent on forcing red-blooded Americans to speak Spanish (or at least intent on forcing us to have to press 1 to hear English). There is no price to pay, at least not in South Carolina, for kissing up to that crowd — the Hispanic vote in the Palmetto State’s Republican primary will be miniscule, and so is the number of non-Hispanic South Carolinian Republicans offended by the tactic.

Still, nobody is running for president of South Carolina. So candidates will be smart to keep in mind that what they say here will echo in the Florida primary. In Florida, too, the Neanderthal wing of the Republican Party has not gone extinct. But Florida’s is the first primary in which the Hispanic vote matters

Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanics, as well as those who are Cuban but were born or brought up in the United States, are as aware as anybody else in the country that some of the Republican candidates — okay,] all of the Republican candidates, except McCain — have been unable to restrain themselves from bad-mouthing immigrants, even as they insist the problem is with illegal immigrants only. Even Giuliani, an unabashed admirer of immigrants while mayor of New York, has not resisted the temptation to stick in a quick kick.

Older Cuban voters — my dad’s generation, those who came to the United States as adults to escape Castro’s gulag — have different priorities. Their number one issue remains American policy toward Cuba. But once that litmus test is passed (Huckabee is the Republican least trusted on Castro) other issues count also. And nobody, not even the most hyper-sensitive, politically correct left-wing Chicano activist from East L.A., is touchier about linguistic and ethnic attacks than these traditional, very conservative retired Cubans

Put it like this: In general election between a Republican anti-Castro hardliner who is not friendly to Spanish-speakers, and a soft-on-Castro Democrat who just loves [end itals] Hispanics, older Cuban voters will either stay home or grudgingly vote for the Republican (see Dole-Clinton, 1996). But in a Republican primary in which every candidate competes to have the hardest anti-Castro line, the attitude toward Spanish and immigration may well be the tie-breaker.

Will Republicans stop pandering to the xenophobic right in Florida? How will they handle immigration in California, Colorado, New Jersey and New York, all of which have significant Hispanic populations, and all of which have primaries on Super Tuesday?

Correction: Last week I wrote that 1968 was “the first election in which most boomers voted.” Had I done my math right I would have realized that the first wave of boomers, born in 1946, turned 21 (the voting age until 1971) in 1967. And that, as my editor points out, makes 1968 the election in which the first (but not “most”) boomers voted.

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