Wednesday, November 15, 2006

After the '06 politics of exclusion, now it's back to inclusion mode

The fundamental tensions within the fragile Republican coalition, which were severely exacerbated by the 2006 campaign, are likely to persist now that Mel Martinez has been tapped to work as general chairman of the national party.

During the Bush era, the GOP has long been struggling to hang onto their traditional conservative voters (many of whom take a hard line against illegal immigrants), while at the same time reaching out to the ever-expanding pool of Hispanic voters (many of whom view a hard line against illegals as a symptom of intolerance). It has been a tricky balancing act, and in this election the Republicans lost their footing.

In seeking to ensure that their conservative voters came to the polls, House Republicans spurned path-to-citizenship legislation and opted instead for a border-security bill, and, before that, a bill that would have made it a felony for anyone to be in America illegally. But, by taking these steps, they turned off millions of Hispanic voters, who stampeded to Democratic candidates and thus sealed Democratic congressional victories in states (such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado) that will be presidential battlegrounds in 2008.

The GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote was 29 percent last week, marking a roughly 15-point drop from 2004. And considering the fact that Hispanics are the fastest-growing electorate in America, and that Karl Rove has long considered Hispanics to be one of the party’s top priorities, the ’06 results have to be considered worrisome.

Hence Bush’s decision to tap a Hispanic as the public face of the Republican party for the next two years. Florida senator Martinez will be the one who delivers the GOP talking points on the Sunday talkfests. Of course, whether Hispanic voters will be impressed just because the GOP’s front man is Hispanic is another matter entirely. But it’s clear that his ascent reflects serious Republican concern about losing ground with that important slice of the electorate.

Which brings us back to those internal Republican tensions – and the fact that a lot of border-security conservatives aren’t thrilled about Martinez getting the job. Simply put, they see his ascent as a slap in the face to the base.

Martinez is on record as favoring a guest-worker program that would help smooth the illegals’ path to citizenship, a Bush idea that base conservatives generally assail as an amnesty program. Indeed, Martinez told reporters yesterday that the party’s ’06 decision to scrap that approach was a political mistake: “Border security only, enforcement only, harshness only, is not the message that I believe America wants to convey.” And he recently contended, “I think there could be great political risks to becoming the party of exclusion, and not a party of inclusion.”

But if, as expected, Martinez pushes these arguments as general chairman of the GOP, he risks seriously riling up the base. The conservative bloggers are already cutting him up; Michelle Malkin calls him "a squish on border security."And one of the key congressional hardliners, Tom Tancredo, warned yesterday that if Martinez spurns “the will of rank and file Republicans and uses (the GOP chairmanship) to advocate for things like the president’s amnesty proposal, then I believe the party could be headed for another shellacking at the polls in 2008.”

Obviously, the Bush team would dearly love to find a way to reconcile both groups of voters, to retain the conservatives while mending bridges with Hispanics. But clearly, by choosing Martinez, the White House has decided there are potentially more Hispanic votes to be gained than conservative votes lost.

And some of the election results last week appear to support the White House position. In Arizona, which is home to a burgeoning Hispanic electorate, two GOP congressional candidates, incumbent J. D. Hayworth and newcomer Randy Graf, ran as security-first conservatives – yet they both lost. Meanwhile, in deeply-red Indiana, incumbent Republican congressman John Hostettler stumped with members of the Minutemen (the citizens group that patrols the border) and ran ads assailing “the nightmare of amnesty” – yet he was waxed on election night by 22 points. He lost for many reasons, of course, but it’s clear that his hard line on illegal immigrants didn’t cut his losing margin.

By naming Martinez (who needs to be formally confirmed by Republican National Committee members six weeks hence), the White House is clearly being mindful of the demoralizing California lesson.

There was a time, during the Reagan era and the early ‘90s, when the GOP was making great strides with Hispanic voters in California, to the point where Republican leaders believed they could paint the nation’s biggest state red for the long haul. But then came a pivotal moment. In 1994, GOP governor Pete Wilson decided that if he bashed illegal immigrants, he could best ensure his re-election; hence his support for a state referendum that would have restricted illegals’ access to schools and health care. The result? Legal Hispanic voters, perceiving the GOP as intolerant, retaliated by voting Democratic in 1996 and 1998 – and virtually wiping out the Republicans in state government. The pattern has held, and California Hispanics have overwhelmingly voted Democratic in federal elections ever since.

I heard this Hispanic sentiment first hand, during a stint in southern California for a magazine story in the spring of 1997. A plumber named John Raya, who was still ticked off about Pete Wilson (and at presidential candidate Bob Dole, who had tried to replicate the hard line strategy in 1996) told me why he was fed up with the Republicans: “All I want is to get my share of the pie. Talk to me about economic opportunity. Talk to me about lower taxes and safe streets. Don't talk to me about immigrant-bashing. I tell the Republicans I know, ‘You guys have been giving the Democrats the best recruiting tool since the Kennedys were alive.’"

Raya added: "You know how this feels (listening to the GOP)? It's like when you have a friend, and you see him keep doing bad stuff, so finally you start to think, 'I'm not so sure about this guy anymore.’ And then you can't stick up for him anymore. I'm at that point. I used to try to talk up the Republicans to other Latinos, but I can't handle it now. I'm a proud guy. I don't want to be cannon fodder anymore."

By designating Mel Martinez as the party’s public face, the White House is trying to put a stop to that kind of talk. But if prominent conservatives, sensing Bush’s lame duck status, figure that they have nothing to lose by resisting, then Hispanic voters may well pay more heed to the GOP’s mixed message – and voice their objections in 2008.


They decide, then they report:

Fox News, the broadcasting arm of the new minority party, is anxious to spread the message that the '06 Democratic victory is akin to a victory for the terrorists. I learned this today, after reading an internal Fox memo (leaked here). In the words of the vice president for News, "Let's be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress."

(By the way, these would be the same Iraqi insurgents whose numbers and clout have grown exponentially since 2003, because of the well-documented failure of the Bush administration to anticipate their presence or map plans to effectively combat them.)

To me, however, the most interesting line in the memo is the final one: "Just because the Dems won, the war on terror isn't over."

"Just because...?"

Funny, I don't recall hearing a single Democratic candidate campaign this year on a platform of ending the war on terror. I do recall hearing Democrats argue for a new direction in Iraq (albeit unspecified), in order to more effectively fight the war on terror. But perhaps this nuance has been lost on the Fox vice president for News.