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USA Today

A Place At U.S. Table For Latinos In 2001?

by Juan R. Palomo

March 24, 1999
Copyright © 1999 USA Today

Hardly a day goes by now that we don't hear the steady drumroll of news analyses outlining the inevitability of a George W. Bush Republican nomination next year. The way some would have us believe, the Texas governor is all but certain to reclaim the White House for the Bush family in 2001.

With Monica Inc. at last almost off the pundits' radar screens, the speculative vacuum is quickly being filled with Bushmania. It probably will go on until voters go to the polls next year, until the Bush train is derailed by unforeseen events, or until the strong showing of some dark-horse candidate.

As a person who has lived in Texas most of his life and who is familiar with how Texas government works, I am, of course, amused by the fact that a man who holds one of the weakest government jobs in the state and who has no national political experience could be considered the front-runner. And as an unabashed liberal who never has been fond of any member of the Bush family, I should be dismissive of the Bush phenomenon.

But, strangely, I keep finding myself increasingly intrigued by what's going on in the GOP, and it has to do with the possibility that the party just might nominate the first Republican to attract a very large number of non-Cuban American Latino votes.

That person could be, of course, Bush, but it could also be Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a politician whose relationship with the Latino community rivals that of Bush but has gone largely unheralded.

The significance of this is huge. A Bush or McCain nomination (or a Bush-McCain or McCain-Bush nomination) would mean that for the first time ever, the Democratic Party would be unable to take the Latino vote for granted.

It would mean that Al Gore, if he is the Democrat's nominee, would be unable to get away with the kind of tokenism that has passed for genuine courtship with most modern Democratic nominees.

Equally as significant, Bush and McCain might draw enough Latino voters into the Republican primaries to dilute the heretofore unchecked power of the religious right. That would put the GOP on its way to being once again a mainstream party attractive to more Latinos . Once the Democratic Party loses its monopoly on Latino votes, no administration of either party could ever treat Latino issues callously.

What they say -- and what they don't

What makes Bush and McCain so different from previous GOP presidential candidates who have courted Latinos is not so much what they have done about Latino issues, but what they have said and not said.

Rather than criticize immigrants, both talk of their importance. Neither is a welfare basher, though both take the traditional GOP stance on the importance of work and self-reliance. They don't trash affirmative action and bilingual education, although at least Bush says the bilingual issue needs further study. Both oppose English-only proposals, and both love to address crowds in Spanish. Finally, neither bashes Mexico.

Latinos in Texas and Arizona have voted with comfort for these men because they understand that in doing so, they are not being traitors to their fellow Latinos and their causes.

Motivation is not the issue

It's not as if Bush and McCain have been without opportunities to alienate Latinos . Both come from states whose state parties are dominated by the GOP's extreme right wing. The Texas governor's father never could muster the courage to defy these people. But George W. Bush has resisted almost all attempts by them to force him to be as strident as they are on such issues as abortion, homosexuality and church-state separation.

We can't, of course, look into the souls of either Bush or McCain, so we don't know whether their words and actions regarding Latino issues come from the heart or are motivated by pure pragmatism -- by the realization that the last two presidential elections have shown us that no candidate who ignores the Latino vote while allowing himself to become a pawn of one wing of his party has a chance of getting into the White House.

But their motives don't really matter. If either man gets elected with strong Latino support, once in office he would be foolish to ignore Latinos the way we have been ignored for so long. If Gore -- or Bill Bradley or some other Democrat -- were elected, he, too, would be unable to ignore us.

Either way, the year 2001 could end up being the first year that Latinos have a genuine place at the American table.

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