Tampa—The schedule for the Republican National Convention made it clear the party would try to win over women and Latinos with empty tokenism instead of substantive policy moderation. Tuesday was women’s night. Thursday was largely for Latinos.
But the GOP has a problem: the prevalence of anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiment among a portion of their base. That is what has driven them to the right on immigration and in turn caused their low poll numbers among Latinos. They want to correct the political problem without solving the underlying policy problem. The result was a somewhat preposterous scenario. Speakers throughout the night invoked their families’ arrivals in America, but without ever discussing immigration as a political or policy issue.
The night featured several speakers and videos chosen partly for their nominal appeal to Latinos. The biggest by far was Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who gave the nominating speech in the network television hour. Rubio occupies a similar space for Republicans that President Obama did circa 2006 for Democrats. Rubio burst onto the national scene in 2010, winning an upset Senate primary against Governor Charlie Crist, and sweeping through the general election in a landslide. He is young, handsome and charismatic. Like Obama, he is an inspiring speaker, with a gift for telling stories and framing his life as a microcosm of America at its finest.
He did just that, and very effectively, on Thursday. He opened with the story of his grandfather, an immigrant paralyzed by polio. “The dreams he had when he was young became impossible to achieve. But there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American,” said Rubio. “For those of us who were born and raised in this country, it’s easy to forget how special America is. But my grandfather understood how different America is from the rest of the world, because he knew what life was like outside America.” And so Rubio demonstrates an emotional connection to recent immigrants and people from humble backgrounds, while carefully avoiding actually using the word “immigrant” or calling for any policies to help such people.
Like Obama, Rubio also has a knack for criticizing his opponents without accusing them of bad faith or being polarizing. This is a very useful skill to have when attacking Obama, who enjoys higher poll numbers for his likeability than for his job performance. Expressing a sentiment one heard from Obama regarding John McCain in 2008—and that was notably lacking from the rest of the RNC’s speakers—Rubio said: “Our problem with President Obama isn’t that he’s a bad person. By all accounts, he too is a good husband, and a good father.…. Our problem is he’s a bad president.”
At its most basic, Rubio’s story and its appeal is that he can frame his rise as the American dream come true. That conveniently squares the circle of appealing to the less fortunate without offering them health insurance, food or housing, by pointing to himself and saying they too, or their children, can get from a service job to the United States Senate.
“A few years ago during a speech, I noticed a bartender behind a portable bar at the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father who had worked for many years as a banquet bartender,” said Rubio, launching into an anecdote that he frequently uses, always to great effect. “He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not the life he wanted for us. He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.” The crowd cheered wildly.
Later, Rubio added, “My dad used to tell us: ‘En este pais, ustedes van a poder lograr todas las cosas que nosotros no pudimos.’ In this country, you will be able to accomplish all the things we never could.”
You can see why Republicans love this. And it is also easy to understand why they think Rubio will help with Latino voters. “He’s a Latino politician to whom they look as an example of success,” Terry McKnight, a delegate from Vermont told me shortly before Rubio spoke. “There has been an effort at the convention to show that the party is a big tent,” said McKnight. (It should be noted that Republican delegates themselves remain virtually all white.)
Savvier minds in the GOP know that Rubio will not actually win them many Latino votes. But they figure that his rags-to-riches tale can make them more broadly appealing in general. On the convention floor I spoke to Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum and matron saint of the religious right. “Latinos are not a monolith,” she said, noting that Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans all have distinct political identities. “But he’s attractive to all of us.” Schlafly bragged of having endorsed Rubio when he was at only 2 percent in the polls for his Senate race. The political talent she identified in him was on full display Thursday.
In the run-up to Rubio, there were some more transparent sops to Latinos. There was a video featuring Latino Republicans, including Rubio and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who addressed the RNC on Wednesday, claiming the GOP is their natural home. In the absence of concrete policies to benefit the Latino community, they relied on broad notions as to how Latinos have a pro-market orientation and should maximize their political clout by not sticking too closely with Democrats. Lines to that effect included, “America’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive in the Hispanic community,” and “for far too long the Hispanic community has been taken for granted by the other party.” They also made the somewhat misleading claim, regarding 2010: “All the Hispanics elected to office in a wave of reform were Republicans.” Since the 2010 year was a Republican rout, in which virtually all of the new elected officials were Republicans, it does not mean very much. It also embodies the tokenistic theme of the convention—that underrepresented groups should be so flattered by having Republican elected officials from their background that they forget Republicans oppose civil rights.
Between the video and Rubio there was a procession of people testifying to the virtues of Romney’s biography. For example, Jane Edmonds, former secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Workforce Development, credited Romney with increasing the representation of women in the upper echelons of Massachusetts’s state government. Ray Fernandez, a former sales rep for a Florida contact lens company purchased by Bain Capital, attested to the benefits of Bain’s ownership for employees such as him.
Romney’s son Craig gave a brief speech in the humanizing-Mitt vein. He briefly spoke Spanish, making comments so platitudinous that even a non-Spanish speaker could understand most of it. “Mi padre—Mitt Romney—es un hombre de familia. Él es un gran esposo, padre y abuelo.” He went on pledge that his father would restore the greatness of America, of course. Then, in English, he hit equally broad themes in order to form some connection with the Latino community. “It’s easy to forget that the story of my father’s success begins with the story of two immigrants—my grandfathers—who came to this country with little more than hope in the opportunity of America,” he said. “Through their hard work and perseverance they lived the American dream, and gave opportunities to their children they wouldn’t have had anywhere else. The Republican Party is dedicated to preserving that opportunity for all Americans. We’ve had the privilege of hearing about different chapters of this same inspiring American story from Governors Sandoval and Martinez and soon-to-be-Senator Cruz.”
Jeb Bush also spoke on Thursday night. Bush is sort of an honorary Latino in the Republican mindset because his wife is Mexican-American. Bush is also a moderate on immigration. But, curiously, he didn’t mention immigration at all. Presumably that’s because the Republican base is committed to a much harsher stance and it would have gone over poorly. The last thing the RNC wanted was an image of the crowd booing while a respected party elder called for compassion towards poor immigrants seeking to pursue the American dream.
That did not leave Bush much to work with. The solution? Make his speech about education reform. Bush is, like his brother, an ardent education reformer. It is an article of faith among Republicans that African-Americans and Latinos are far more receptive to school vouchers and other efforts to bust teachers unions than are Democrats. It is also an appealing way to frame the GOP’s “you’re on your own” ethos as support for individual initiative.
“We need to set high standards for students and teachers and provide students and their parents the choices they deserve,” said Bush. And then, echoing his brother’s famous phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” he added: “The first step is a simple one. We must stop pre-judging children based on their race, ethnicity or household income.”
Bush went on to boast, “Among African-American students, Florida is ranked fourth in the nation for academic improvement. Among low-income students, we’re ranked third for our gains. Among students with disabilities, we’re ranked first. And among Latino students, the gains were so big, they required a new metric. Right now, Florida’s fourth grade Hispanic students read as well or better than the average of all students in twenty-one states and the District of Columbia.” These stats are all true, although they are a little selective: they gloss over the fact that Florida still has an achievement gap between minority and white students, and that its scores lag for all groups in science.
Bush’s education arguments were aimed as much at suburban, white swing voters as at Latinos. Lower-income voters need food stamps, Medicaid and public housing, all of which Republicans would cut. Latinos want immigration reform. School choice is unlikely to convince either group to vote Republican. But to salve the conscience of middle-class whites that they are not cold-hearted if they vote Republican, school choice might do the trick.
Romney echoed some of Rubio’s rhetoric in his acceptance speech. “When every new wave of immigrants looked up and saw the Statue of Liberty, or knelt down and kissed the shores of freedom just ninety miles from Castro’s tyranny, these new Americans surely had many questions,” said Romney. “But none doubted that here in America they could build a better life, that in America their children would be more blessed than they.” Romney nodded to the idea that religiosity could be a common ground between Republicans and minorities. “Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church,” said Romney. “When we were new to the community it was welcoming and as the years went by, it was a joy to help others who had just moved to town or just joined our church. We had remarkably vibrant and diverse congregants from all walks of life and many who were new to America. We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways.”
One way that Romney is unwilling to help these diverse friends of his, though, is by paying more in taxes so that they can have health insurance. Those are the kinds of issues that most voters will bear in mind when they vote this November.