Monday, July 21, 2008


Barack Obama and John McCain have been running hard after Hispanic voters the past three weeks.

Speeches by each candidate before three different Hispanic national groups, trips by McCain to Colombia and Mexico, an awkward new television ad by McCain and some remarks on language by Obama that the nutty right twisted out of context.

The speeches were before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza. Each candidate tried to kiss up to the audiences in the ways you’d expect.

“[A]s the first African-American nominee of my party,” Obama told NALEO, I’m hoping that somewhere out in this audience sits the person who will become the first Latino nominee of a major party.”

Applause and cheers from the crowd. He was making the We-Are-Minorities-Together link.
It’s a connection that McCain can’t make, obviously. But the Arizona senator has his own way of connecting, one that is beyond Obama.

He talked of his days in a North Vietnamese prison and “My friend, Everett Alvarez, a brave American of Mexican descent.” He went on, “When you take the solemn stroll along that wall of black granite on the national Mall, it is hard not to notice the many names such as Rodríguez, Hernández and López that so sadly adorn it. When you visit Iraq and Afghanistan you will meet some of the thousands of Hispanic-Americans who serve there, and many of those who risk their lives to protect the rest of us.”

Ah, the We-Are-Patriotic-Americans-Together link.

On issues of substance, McCain was on the defensive. Obama unambiguously declared himself in favor of giving illegal immigrants a path to residency. McCain also declared himself in favor, but not for now. He has had to backtrack from his own bill that would have provided that path and told the NCLR, “When we have achieved our border security goal, we must enact and implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy.”

That made it easy for Obama to attack McCain at all three appearances for walking away from “comprehensive [immigration] reform when it becomes politically unpopular.”

McCain won points with his visits to Mexico and Colombia, though. The latter has an unsuspected importance. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is hugely popular in Colombia and also among Colombian Americans, and it is McCain, not Obama, who is more closely aligned to him and supportive of the U.S.-Colombia trade pact. No small matter, with the Colombian-American vote growing rapidly in the battleground state of Florida.

But McCain took a hit because of an ad that just doesn’t work. The spot uses his remarks at a June 2007 debate in New Hampshire, when he honored Hispanic Americans in the armed forces, even “the few thousand that are still green card holders who are not even citizens of this country, who love this country so much that they’re willing to risk their lives in its service.” Nice sentiments. Until McCain added that “They must come into the country legally.”

When he said this last at the debate year, he was criticized. No good reason to bring up immigration status in a tribute to American fighting men — but hey, anybody can slip in an extemporaneous remark.

However, re-using the same non-sequitur in a recorded, planned-out television spot makes it seem as if McCain is pandering to the anti-immigrant right in a television commercial that the anti-immigrant right could well say panders to Hispanics.

Then there is the dust-up involving Obama and the Spanish language. At a campaign stop in Georgia he said, “I don’t understand when people are going around saying, ‘We need to have English only.’ They want to pass a law, ‘We want English only.’ Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English. They’ll learn English. You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual.”

Not hard to figure out what came next. A group called the Americans for Legal Immigration accused Obama of saying “Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish.” The ever dependable Lou Dobbs said it was a “pander to the illegal alien lobby.”

Never mind that immigration had not been part of the discussion when Obama spoke about language.

It will be an interesting run to November.

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