Is Harry Reid Right About the GOP?

The Nevada senator’s remark about Hispanics riled Republicans, who reached out to Latinos under Bush. Matt Latimer on what 43 got wrong on immigration—and how the Dems are exploiting it.

08.12.10 8:57 AM ET

Senator Harry Reid’s latest sermon on race—“I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican"—has sparked within the GOP the predictable mix of outraged protests and guffaws.  It is safe to say that the Nevada senator, fresh off of his tone-deaf praise of President Obama’s “non-Negro dialect,” is not in immediate danger of receiving an NAACP Image Award.  But his clumsy outburst does provide another clue to the Democratic Party’s strategy for this fall’s congressional elections: to paint the surging GOP as a party of bigots and racists, inhospitable to Hispanic voters. Unfortunately for Republicans, the GOP leadership is playing its part perfectly—though not in the way one might expect.

Ironically, Republicans had taken great pride in their outreach to Hispanic voters over the past decade. The George W. Bush team placed a premium on this effort—down to the most minor of details. I first observed this as a volunteer at the 2000 Republican Convention, where one of my tasks was to help make signs for delegates to wave during the televised proceedings. (At the risk of disillusioning those who think these hand-painted signs are created by the delegates themselves, nearly every one is prepared and vetted by campaign staff.)   Among all the signs we were asked to paint—“We  Love Laura” “America Wants Bush-Cheney”—no sign was requested more by officials than “Viva Bush.” Dozens of these signs soon found their way to prominent spots in the convention hall.  

A reasoned discussion of the failure of the nation’s immigration laws does not have to drive Hispanic voters from the GOP.  This was a message the Bush team never seemed to understand.

Once he became president, Bush demonstrated an unquestionably sincere commitment to welcoming Hispanics to the GOP. His first foreign trip as president was not, as expected, to Europe but to Mexico. He appointed a number of Hispanics to prominent positions in his administration—including, at one point, chairman of the Republican Party. In speeches Bush loved to sprinkle Spanish phrases into his text. He himself might joke that he was better at pronouncing the Spanish than the English. During his years in office the president took part in so many Hispanic-themed events that it might not have been surprising to see Bush at the groundbreaking for a new Taco Bell.  

Now, as Hispanic affinity for the GOP appears to be eroding—exit polls indicate a swelling of Hispanic support for President Obama in 2008—members of the former Bush administration have joined Democrats in chastising conservatives and “Tea Party activists” for undoing all of their hard work. “The Republican Party’s blowing it,” grouses former Bush aide Dan Bartlett, seeming to echo Harry Reid in forecasting electoral disaster for the GOP.  Another former Bush aide, Ed Gillespie, urges the party to stop indulging in what he labels “anti-immigration rhetoric” if it hopes to see more electoral victories. But the situation is more complicated than that, and it’s probably not surprising that the Bush team does not get it. 

Indeed, it was the Bush team itself that botched the party’s Hispanic outreach efforts and on the exact subject that remains a hot-button today: illegal immigration. By advancing legislation that amounted to amnesty for illegals in 2006, Republican leaders greatly misjudged the frustration and anger shared by many in their party about the influx of undocumented aliens into the United States and the federal government’s inability, even unwillingness, to enforce its immigration laws. What’s more, the administration’s wobbly effort helped revive the schism between the party and the Hispanic voters it coveted. 

Having worked closely for a border state senator, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, before I came to the Bush administration, I saw firsthand the personal and financial toll that illegal immigration has taken on border communities. In parts of Arizona, emergency rooms overwhelmed by uninsured illegal aliens faced closure because of spiraling financial costs. At least one maternity hospital near the Arizona-Mexico border had to close its doors because it could no longer care for patients—meaning that pregnant women had to drive many miles away from their homes in order to deliver.  Local communities watched as people they saw as law-breakers trespassed across their land, sometimes vandalizing it, while law enforcement officials seemingly did little.  Those who did try to enforce Arizona’s law—such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—became local folk heroes. Arizona’s tough new immigration law and its surprising popularity—some polls have national support for the law as high as 64 percent—is a direct reflection of voter frustration with the federal government.

The Obama administration seems not to understand this any better than its predecessors.  Rather than try to have a serious conversation about frustrations over illegal immigration, Bush and his top aides became stubborn. To the astonishment of many of Bush’s most fervent supporters, the Bush team joined the Democrats in branding opponents of his plan as racists and cowards.  At one low point the president said that members of his own party did not want “to do what’s right for America.” Predictably support for Bush within his political base sunk.  More troubling, the massive rift the administration had created over the subject further alienated Hispanic voters from the party—since even Bush was all but labeling his own supporters bigots and fearmongers. Now the very same people who caused this schism seek to further exacerbate it by making the same charges.  

It is of course essential that the Republican Party compete for Hispanic voters. And in that effort GOP leaders can indeed learn from the Bush team—by again making a serious, consistent, even over-the-top effort to demonstrate that Hispanic voters are welcome in the party. Hispanic voters did not become attracted to the Republican cause in 2000 and 2004 because a bunch of white people wore “Viva Bush” pins. But those overtures did encourage Hispanics, particularly the more culturally conservative, to feel more comfortable with the GOP and therefore take a serious look at the party’s positions on the economy, on various social issues, and on a strong national defense. A reasoned and thoughtful discussion of the failure of the nation’s immigration laws does not have to drive Hispanic voters from the GOP—they respect America’s laws too. This was a message the Bush team never seemed to understand.  

How much better off the GOP would have been if its leaders had worked harder to differentiate between expressing concerns over illegal immigrants and welcoming legal ones—or if it concentrated on making it easier for skilled foreign labor to become guest workers through a rational, fair, and legal process. Instead the party remains split over the mess its former leaders had created. Here is hoping a new generation of the GOP has learned something from the party’s past mistakes.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.