DALLAS -- Losing the White House and failing to win control of Congress has left Democrats soul-searching for what went wrong. What the party of Roosevelt really should look for is a way to reconnect with one of the most important groups of voters on the American political landscape.
Exit polls show that President Bush took 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 election, far outdistancing the 21 percent that Bob Dole received four years earlier. Bush maintained the GOP's traditional support among Cuban-Americans, but he also made inroads with Mexican-Americans, who traditionally vote Democratic. Since taking office, Bush has appointed Hispanics to the Cabinet (though he missed the chance to appoint a Mexican-American), traveled to Mexico to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox, framed education reform as a civil rights issue, and sprinkled Spanish into some of his speeches.
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Hispanics -- even those who didn't vote for Bush -- are getting more comfortable with the idea that the new president has their interests at heart. That is something that should make Democrats very uncomfortable.
The Democratic Party earned its spot in the hearts of three different generations of Hispanic voters by expanding job opportunities that helped create the Hispanic middle-class, funding public education, preserving civil rights and protecting Social Security. In the 1960s and '70s, the Democrats enjoyed solid backing from appreciative Hispanic voters. In the 1980s, they lost ground to the charismatic Ronald Reagan who, in 1984, won nearly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. They caught a break when California Gov. Pete Wilson fueled his 1994 re-election with rhetorical attacks on Mexican immigrants, and other Republicans talked up English-only laws.
The trouble came when Democrats, delighted that Republicans had seemingly shot themselves in the foot with Hispanic voters, began to take their old friends for granted and focus more on courting middle-class suburban voters. By the time the Spanish-speaking George W. Bush made his pitch for Hispanic support in his 1998 re-election bid (eventually walking off with half of the Hispanic vote in Texas) Democrats had just two weapons left: fear and condescension.
Democrats like to remind Hispanics of the damage done by Pete Wilson Republicans and offer themselves as a more enlightened alternative. A few years ago, a report landed on my desk. Titled, "The GOP's Anti-Hispanic Agenda,'' it had been sent to me -- and, I presume, to dozens of other Hispanic journalists -- by the staff of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
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When fear fails, Democrats react with arrogant disbelief that any Hispanic in his right mind would consider voting for even the most moderate Republicans. Dismissing the fact that Bush and other Republicans speak Spanish, they talk about how "actions speak louder than words'' and hope out loud that Hispanics will not fall for the same ethnic appeals that Democrats had employed for decades, before toning them down in the 1990s. In an interview with Politico magazine published this week, Gephardt bragged that the Democratic Party doesn't "use Latino communities as a background for an event.'' That will come as news to those who watched Bill Clinton and Al Gore pose with mariachis in Los Angeles and San Antonio.
That patronizing approach has helped convince many Hispanics that Democrats have, in the 40 years since the fabled Viva Kennedy campaign, become so accustomed to winning Hispanic support that they now view these voters as their own private property.
Now Democrats have a chance at redemption. The first thing they have to do is put aside their traditional black-and-white view of race relations in America. Hispanics will soon become the nation's largest minority group, something that is already true in most of the 10 largest U.S. cities). Democrats should expand their notion of civil rights and make sure Hispanics are included in any future race initiatives.
They need to take these voters and potential voters more seriously. While shortsighted political strategists still dismiss the population as mostly young and nonvoting, the truth is that, at a time when voter participation rates for most groups have flattened, the rate for Hispanics has risen in states like California. They need to stop resting on their laurels and aggressively compete for Hispanic support. This is a community where a little attention and respeto goes a long way. Democrats have to do better than simply adopting a philosophy of "if you build it, they will come."
Recent events teach us that sometimes they don't come. Sometimes they go someplace else.