Michael Gerson, the former Bush 43 speechwriter, has an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today on the subject of the Republican party’s suicidal antipathy [my words, not his] toward Hispanics.
Gerson uses the resignation of former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez of Florida in August as his entry point for the piece: (“[T]he departure of the Republican Party’s most visible Hispanic leader crackles with political symbolism.”)
Some of Gerson’s observations:
* In ethnic politics, symbolism matters. And recent Republican signals to Hispanics have often been crudely unwelcoming. During the 2006 congressional debate on immigration reform, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) grabbed the Republican microphone to call Miami a “Third World country.” The same year, Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) darkly warned of illegal immigrant murderers as a “slow motion nightmare” greater than Sept. 11. A provision of the House immigration reform bill would have made it illegal for priests, ministers and volunteers to “assist” illegal immigrants – criminalizing a religious duty. Republican presidential candidates conspicuously avoided Hispanic forums during the 2008 primaries. Conservative shock radio, on its frightening fringes, can be overtly racist, referring to Mexican immigrants as “leeches,” “the world’s lowest primitives” and diseased carriers of the “fajita flu” who may “wipe their behinds with their hands.” Pat Buchanan sells books with this title: State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America.
* Republican support among Latinos is collapsing. In Martinez’s home state of Florida, for example, 56 percent of Hispanic voters cast ballots for George W. Bush in 2004. Four years later, 57 percent voted for Barack Obama.
* [H]earings are beginning on another immigration reform bill, with a legislative debate likely to ripen in 2010. For Democrats – pledged to comprehensive reform but weighing union opposition to a temporary-worker program – the immigration debate will be difficult. For Republicans, it may be an invitation to political suicide.
* Some conservatives dismiss electoral considerations as soiled and cynical. They will make their case, even if that means sacrificing Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and … Indiana. Yes, Indiana, which had supported Republican presidential candidates for 40 years before Obama captured it on the strength of Hispanic votes. This is a good definition of extremism – the assumption that irrelevance is evidence of integrity. In fact, it is a moral achievement of democracy that it eventually forces political parties to appeal to minorities and outsiders instead of demonizing them. The scramble for votes, in the long run, requires inclusion.
* By 2030, the Latino share of the vote in America is likely to double. Some Republicans seem to be calculating that this influence can be countered by running up their percentage of support among white voters. But this is not eventually realistic, because non-college-educated whites are declining as a portion of the electorate. And it is disturbing in any case to set the goal of a whiter Republican Party.
* In considering illegal immigration, many talk appropriately about the rule of law. But there is also the imago dei – the shared image of God – that does not permit individual worth and dignity to be sorted by national origin. This commitment does not translate simplistically into open borders and amnesty. It does mean, however, that immigrants should not be used as objects of organized anger or singled out for prejudice and harm. If Republicans head down this dreary path, many could no longer follow. This approach would not only shrink the party, it would split it. Catholics and evangelicals, who have been central to the Republican coalition, cannot ultimately accept a message of resentment against foreigners. Their faith will not allow it.
* * * *
I hope Gerson is right that Catholics and evangelicals cannot ultimately accept a message of resentment against foreigners. Alas, I have not seen any evidence that faith has inspired kinder, gentler impulses from evangelicals involved in politics.