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ELECTION 2004

Nix on Nativism
Ignore the anti-immigrant right. Bush did.

BY JASON L. RILEY
Monday, November 22, 2004 12:01 a.m.
Online at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110005927


"Spin," says William Safire's "New Political Dictionary," is the "deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction." Partisans typically use spin to burnish a bad outcome. But since the election, some on the right have attempted to downplay or divert attention from a positive development--the GOP's historic gains among Latino voters.

Exit polls put the president's share of the Latino vote at around 45%, an increase of nine percentage points from the 2000 election and far surpassing the previous record of 37% for a Republican presidential candidate set by Ronald Reagan in 1984. Yet conservative spinmeisters tell us this is no cause for jubilation.

Pat Buchanan insists that the exit polls are inaccurate, or at least the ones measuring the Hispanic vote. Other columnists have attached great significance to the fact that Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican who has made opposition to immigration his signature, won re-election. Yeah, him and 98% of House incumbents. Then there's National Review, which maintains that the real Hispanic story on Election Day isn't the Bush vote totals. Rather, it's the passage of Prop. 200, a redundant ballot measure in Arizona that bans illegal aliens from receiving government services that are already off-limits to them.

There are several explanations for all the conservative pooh-poohing. The most obvious is a fear among restrictionists that the Bush administration will interpret its Latino returns as a mandate to proceed with immigration reform. In January, President Bush floated the idea of a guest-worker program that would free up border agents to pursue terrorist threats instead of spending their time chasing down Mexicans who come here to work. The base went bonkers. Some on the right just can't bear the thought of a border policy that focuses less on militarization and more on balancing security with the needs of the economy.

But there's another reason why these conservatives are downplaying this newfound Hispanic affinity for the GOP. Having insisted for years that Latinos are lost to Republicans--that time spent courting our largest ethnic minority group is time wasted--the editors at National Review, the commentators at Fox News and their anti-immigrant amigos at the Center for Immigration Studies are all loath to admit they were wrong.

Indeed, one way President Bush won a second term is by ignoring those who bash GOP outreach. His success is the fruition of a drive launched three years ago Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd. Exceeding everyone's expectations, Latino support for the president expanded in states in the West, South and Southwest that are essential to Republicans maintaining their current advantage.

Thus the result in the president's home state of Texas, the second-most populous after California. Nearly one of every four voters in Texas is Hispanic, and Mr. Bush upped his share of that vote to 59% from 43% in 2000. In Florida, which is the fourth-most populous state and where 15% of voters are Hispanic, his share of the Hispanic vote rose by seven percentage points. Still, it was Mr. Bush's success out West, where the Latino population is exploding, that probably made the most difference. "For all the attention paid to Florida and Ohio," reported the Houston Chronicle, "had Bush not done respectably in Latino communities in those two Western states [New Mexico and Nevada] and carried Iowa by a hair . . . he would have lost the election."

For many GOP-friendly political observers, attitudes toward the Hispanic vote stem from the California experience. The argument is that California, won handily by John Kerry, isn't competitive these days in presidential races due to a large immigrant population that tends to lean leftward. That's partly true, but before pinning this on the Mexican influx, consider that California's cultural liberalism has long been a magnet for Democrats. Consider the depleted Republican base as many middle-class whites in search of a better quality of life decamp for Boise, Tempe, Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore. And consider that from a PR perspective, the GOP's support for Prop. 187, California's forerunner to Arizona's Prop. 200, hasn't helped.

What the blame-Latinos-first faction might want to explore is why Republicans are able to compete in other states with sizable Hispanic populations, such as Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Is it possible that California is the exception, not the rule? The issue is probably moot. The demographic facts of life in America today make it plain that there's no alternative to dealing politically with Hispanics both here and on their way.

Yes, keepers of the Malthusian flame at places like the Federation of American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA have been insisting for years that the U.S. is overpopulated. The economist Thomas Sowell has challenged these alarmists to "name just one country that had a higher standard of living when its population was half of what it is today." Meanwhile, social conservatives preaching ethnocentrism fret that too many undesirables from south of the border are soiling our Anglo-American cultural fabric. At least one Manhattan Institute scholar is convinced that Latino men are congenital gangbangers.

But this horse has left the barn. America is already home to 36 million people of Latin American descent who comprise nearly 13% of the population. A Census Bureau report released earlier this year says those numbers will climb to 103 million and 24% by mid-century. Over the same period, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites is expected to shrink to 50% from today's 69%. Mr. Bush may have claimed 58% of the white vote this year, but it's prudent for Republicans to anticipate diminishing future returns from this voter segment.

As my colleague Michael Gonzalez pointed out in this space recently, Election Day taught the GOP that Latinos can be turned into a viable swing voting bloc. Unlike blacks, who continue to pull the Democratic lever monolithically, Hispanics now stand poised to reap the spoils of our two-party system like other minority groups who split their allegiance. And while we know that President Bush can appeal to Latinos, we don't know whether that appeal can be transferred to the Republican Party and contribute to a possible long-term realignment.

Mr. Bush just met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and told him he is pushing ahead with a guest-worker program. The Republican Congress could do worse than meet Mr. Bush halfway. Immigration reform would go a long way toward solidifying the GOP's majority status. And it's not something that the nation's newest arrivals and their descendents would soon forget.


Mr. Riley is a senior editorial page writer at The Wall Street Journal.
 

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