Commentary by Maria Cardona, Latinovations
WASHINGTON - When I was invited to speak recently at the first Americano Forum —the effort hosted by former Speaker Newt Gingrich to reach out to conservative Latinos — I told the group that they had a long way to go with Latinos. There was unanimous agreement. I said a strong, credible first step would be to support passage of the DREAM Act. Most agreed.
Now some Republicans are suggesting that pushing the DREAM Act could endanger their support for the New START treaty. If this is the case, their shortsightedness is not only putting our national security at risk, it puts their longterm viability as a party on the line.
It is clear that many conservative GOP leaders, at least the most intellectually honest, have a sober understanding of the long road ahead for the conservative movement and the Republican Party to make real progress toward attracting Latino voters.
The midterm results underscore this. Latinos overwhelmingly supported Democrats. Latino voters are rightly credited with having saved the Democratic Senate majority —and particularly seats of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.). Though there were some Republicans elected to statewide office in Nevada and New Mexico, neither won with a majority of the Latino vote.
Republicans have only themselves to blame for this predicament — thanks to the likes of Tom Tancredo, Sharron Angle and others who have depicted Latinos as terrorists and gang members. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) talks about wanting to complete “the dang fence.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wants to hold hearings on the 14th Amendment, suggesting there is merit to wanting to take away birthright citizenship from children born of undocumented immigrants. This is no recipe for increasing any party’s ranks with Latino voters.
So what do Republicans need to do? If they are serious about winning the White House in 2012, they have to be serious about getting more than 40 percent of the Latino vote. No Republican can win the presidency without that.
The Republican pollster Matthew Dowd repeatedly said that President George W. Bush would not have been re-elected without 40 percent of the Latino vote. Given the growth in the Latino population from 2004 until now, it is evident that the percentage threshold has to be much higher.
How can Republicans start down this path? Like any proven multi-step rehabilitation program, you need to be brave. And you begin with small steps. The political equivalent would be to support the DREAM Act.
This bill has been debated for a decade. It calls for an onerous process for qualified young people, brought to the United States when very young, to obtain legal status by either attending college or serving in the military. Both Republicans and Democrats wrote the bill and support it. It has even passed twice out of the Senate Judiciary Committee — as part of a comprehensive immigration bill.
The House passed the DREAM Act in a bipartisan vote last week. So why do any Senate Republicans now withhold support from legislation that not only strengthens our military, education system, national security, but gives hope to millions of children who have known and loved only one country—the United States? No reason except politics as usual.
Here lies the long-term danger for Republicans. By voting against this practical legislation, one that makes our country stronger, Republicans are voting against their own longterm interests — and their chances of regaining the White House in 2012.
No wonder former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is making calls behind the scenes urging senators to support this.
Though much has been said about President Barack Obama not pushing through Comprehensive Immigration Reform in his first year, after he promised he would, no one can say that the White House has not used political capital here. In addition to the president, six Cabinet secretaries have held conference calls, publicly and privately, with constituents and the media, written op-ed pieces, blogs and called members of Congress. Community activists, seeing the White House effort, are pulling out all the stops to convince their members to contact key senators still withholding support.
Make no mistake, these community activists and leaders are taking names. They will know who stood with them — and who preferred to play politics.
The DREAM Act could do so much. Not just to give hope to millions of smart, creative, hard-working students and would-be servicemen and women, it would give our country the greatest resource there is —our young leaders.
The road to the White House leads through Latino territory. The DREAM Act vote is likely to begin to tell the story of how hostile or how open to Republicans that territory will be.
Any Republican with an eye on 2012 would be wise to convince their senate colleagues to come on board. If not for the country, then for the long-term viability of the GOP.
Voting for the DREAM Act can be the Republicans’ start of a new day with Latinos.
Maria Cardona is a Principal at the Dewey Square Group (DSG), a premier national public affairs firm, where she heads the firm’s Public Affairs Practice, combining public policy, communications, coalition building, constituency outreach, government relations, traditional and new media. Cardona also founded DSG’s Latino Strategies Practice, “Latinovations,” which guides clients on “best practices” on building support for their positions, products and brands within the Hispanic community.