Monday, July 02, 2007

It's bad politics to insult Cuban-Americans

Fred Thompson, the GOP’s purported dream candidate, might be well advised to brush up on his rhetorical skills prior to his official launch. Clearly he’s still a bit rusty on the stump, after all those years of Hollywood make-believe.

The other night, while speaking in South Carolina about the importance of tougher border security in the age of terrorism, Thompson warned that those Cubans who habitually escape their island with a yearning to breathe free might really be coming here to blow us all up. Thompson said that, in 2005, we “rounded up over a thousand folks who originally came from Cuba. If they’re coming Cuba, where else are they coming from? I don’t imagine they’re coming to bring greetings from Castro. We’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb.”

Unless you closely follow Republican presidential politics – and, more specifically, Florida politics – those remarks probably seem unremarkable. But, politically speaking, they are downright stupid. In fact, it’s the kind of stupidity that can seriously damage a Republican hopeful, particularly a semi-candidate whose impressive poll standing, at least at this point, is basically smoke and mirrors.

Thompson appeared to be saying that the Cubans who embark for America are not coming here to enjoy the fruits of freedom; rather, they are potential terrorists because, after all, “we’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb.” Perhaps he could have justified that remark by also providing some proof that some of those “thousand folks,” or Cuban emigrants captured in other years, did in fact turn out to be terrorists. But he didn’t, thus leaving the impression that Cubans in general are seeking entry to do us harm, not to pursue the American dream.

I doubt that is what Thompson meant to imply; indeed, he later wrote on his blog that he wanted to “clarify something” about his South Carolina remarks. He then insisted that he meant to say that Fidel Castro might be sending Cuban agents through Mexico, disguised as Cuban emigrants, and that he didn’t intend to cast suspicion upon “the vast majority who immigrate legally.”

Oh. Well, then perhaps he should have explained all that in his speech. Because, as conservative commentator Jim Geraghty points out, Thompson seemed to be maligning all the anti-communist Cubans who seek to reach these shores…and, for a Republican, that is very bad politics.

In Geraghty’s words, “Aw, man. Of all the groups Fred Thompson could cite as a potential security threat, did he have to pick the Cubans? The one group of Hispanics that leans Republican?”

There’s the rub. At a time when the GOP, thanks in part to the conservatives' harsh tone in the immigration reform debate, is losing support among the fastest growing demographic group in the electorate – a new Gallup poll shows that Hispanics nationwide are leaning Democratic by nearly 3-1 – Thompson has managed to (inadvertently) insult the only Hispanic constituency that has stayed loyal to the GOP - most notably, in the pivotal state of Florida.

To gauge the political importance of the Cuban-Americans in Florida, consider this: if it wasn’t for them, George W. Bush would have spent the last six years in private life, probably trying to fulfill his old dream of becoming baseball commissioner. As you know, Bush officially won Florida in 2000 by 537 votes. He would never have managed that feat if Cuban Floridians, roughly half a million strong, hadn’t favored him over Al Gore by a margin of 81 to 17 percent.

Fairly or not, Thompson’s poorly-worded remarks have already been immortalized on YouTube, and Democratic operatives are reportedly circulating the video. Hillary Clinton, who happened to be in Miami for a Saturday speech to an Hispanic group, promptly waxed indignant, as opposing politicians are wont to do: “"I was appalled when one of the people running for or about to run for the Republican nomination talked about Cuban refugees as potential terrorists.” (Actually, it was her husband’s administration that sent a six-year-old boy back to Cuba, thereby insulting the Cuban-American electorate, which is precisely why Thompson should never have given her the opening.)

You can also bet that if Thompson wins the nomination, his remarks will be dredged up in the autumn of ’08, as Democrats seek to capture the crucial Sunshine State. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Thompson must first contest the other Republicans, some of whom might well be tempted to circulate his remarks when they compete for Cuban-American votes in the Florida GOP primary next January.

So perhaps the moral of this tale is, if you’re going to be touted by your fans as a Reaganesque communicator, it would be wise to shake off the cobwebs and live up to the hype.