After the 2000 presidential election, I read an illuminating article about the complicated relationship between Al Gore and Bill Clinton. The reporter had spoken to dozens of Gore and Clinton confidants to better understand their dynamic.
One observation was that Gore lacked Clinton's empathy and social skills, and this baffled the president. After all, for Clinton, connecting with people is second nature. The aides said they could see the frustration on Clinton's face at Gore's inability to make that connection, as if he were thinking, "C'mon, this just isn't that hard."
Today, one can imagine that George W. Bush is thinking the same thing about the difficulty Republicans are having with Hispanic voters, and specifically how it is that many Republicans can't seem to talk about the immigration issue without ticking off this important constituency.
A few weeks ago, I met with an old friend of Bush's who has known the former president for almost 30 years. I asked him how he thought Bush reacted when he watched the debates in the GOP primary, where those vying for the Republican nomination appeared to compete with one another as to who could do the best job of sending Hispanics into the arms of Democrats. He said, "I think he just does one of these." He put his hands over his face and shook his head.
That is the reaction of a lot of Republicans these days. I hear all the time from people who consider themselves conservative on social issues or economic policies. And yet they don't understand why lawmakers can't fix the immigration system in a way that reaffirms the rule of law, secures the border, provides a work force for industries that are shorthanded and creates a pathway where those who have been living in this country illegally can become legal as long as they're willing to admit they did wrong and make it right.
The stakes couldn't be higher. If conservatives could learn to talk honestly about immigration, they might have a shot at winning the percentage of the Hispanic vote that they need to stay competitive in a presidential election: about 35%.
But if they don't, if they're stubborn and refuse to change their immigration message, in both substance and tone, it's possible that the next time a Republican is elected president, my grandkids' grandkids will be flying their spaceships to the polls.
I have my own prescription. Republicans need to stop framing the immigration issue as a culture war and start talking about it as a matter of economic necessity. They need to stop pandering to racists and nativists and start reaching out to those in the sensible center. And they need to stop depicting immigrants as defective or inferior and start recognizing their strengths and contributions.
Bush gets it. He has a message for his party, and if Republicans are smart, they'll listen. The man who got 35% of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and what is, for Republicans, a record 44% in 2004 knows a little something about winning over voters who might not be inclined to support a Republican.
First, you have to understand what it means for a Republican to put those kinds of numbers on the board. A majority of Latinos are always going to vote for the Democratic nominee, just as they have in 14 straight presidential elections dating to 1960. But when a Republican candidate can carve out 44% of a constituency that Democrats assume they have locked up, there's no way the Democratic candidate is going to win. He's going to spend the whole time playing catchup. Ask John Kerry, who lost to Bush in 2004, after running what had been the worst campaign ever in terms of reaching out to Hispanics.