Wednesday, June 18, 2008

McCain’s Hispanic Dilemma

A John McCain commercial intended to air in South Florida radio stations features Roberto Martín Pérez, who was a political prisoner of the Castro regime for 28 years until released in 1987.

“While some support a dialogue with Raúl Castro, John McCain believes we should support the courageous men and women who continue to stand up for freedom in Cuba,” he said. “Rather than resume relations with Raúl Castro, John McCain wants first and foremost for all political prisoners to be released.”

Martín Pérez does not mention Barack Obama by name, but the reference is clear: Do not elect Obama because he will “dialogue” and “resume relations” with the dictatorship, and therefore help it stay in power.

Fair enough. At the very least, Obama has sent out mixed signals on Cuba policy. In a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation last month, he said he would not lead a diplomatic effort with the Castro regime unless “we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.” But he also said it was “time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” In the rough world of presidential politics, that statement is fair game.

The spot is, of course, an effort to win conservative votes on Calle Ocho.

But will it lose McCain conservative votes on Main Street?

It will. The ad happens to be in Spanish. And the responses on the YouTube page where it’s posted came fast and furious.

Says one: “Please make English commercials ... I am getting nervous about your priorities. I am a lifelong Republican and could never vote for Obama, but I want to feel like you are also my president, not just for illegals.”

Says another: “Don’t know what to say! Are you still allowed to speak English in this country? Enough of illegal Mexican appeasement!”

Something similar happened earlier in the month, when the campaign began a series of Spanish-language ads about McCain’s plan to revive the economy. The message is conservative economics in pure form. But to that certain breed of right-wing nut, it did not matter.

“Muy estupido, Senator McAmnesty,” wrote someone on the Washington Post’s campaign blog. At the far-right Vdare Web site, there was the usual talk of “Balkanization.”

The ignorance is breathtaking. There can be no greater waste of time than attempting to explain to this kind of person that political advertisements reaffirming conservative policies to conservative U.S. citizens of Hispanic heritage have nothing at all — zilch, nada — to do with “appeasing” illegal immigrants from Mexico. And everybody knows that nearly all second- and third-generation immigrants speak English as their primary language.

But there you have it. Some people will make those connections. The Spanish language seems to cause some sort of Pavlovian negative response in the brain of some conservatives, even when the message is eminently conservative.

And that is a big problem for John McCain. Out of all the candidates in the Republican field back in February, he has always been the most likely to get 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote in November, which was what George W. Bush won in 2004. Karl Rove has said Republicans cannot win if they don’t get that much.

But some of the qualities that make McCain an attractive candidate to conservative Hispanics are the qualities that make him “Senator McAmnesty” in the far precincts of the Right.
Will matching Bush’s 40 percent without losing the right-wing loonies that are also essential to a Republican victory prove to be Mission: Impossible for John McCain?

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