‘A friend of mine, a Hispanic entrepreneur, asked me a question some time ago. He said, ‘When is the last time you saw a Hispanic panhandler?’ I think it’s a great question. I’ll tell you, in my life I never once have seen a Hispanic panhandler, because in our community it would be viewed as shameful to be out on the street begging.”
That was Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas on Fox News Sunday. He went on to make the case that Latinos are culturally conservative and economically entrepreneurial.
Just for the record, I’ve seen a Latino panhandler or two. Or at least I think they were Latino — I don’t usually quiz panhandlers about their ethnic backgrounds.
But Cruz is right that there do seem to be fewer Latino beggars than beggars of other ethnicities (though in my experience, Asian-Americans are the biggest shirkers when it comes to creating an ethnically diverse lumpenproletariat), and I think Cruz’s pride in this fact is refreshing — and helpful.
I’ve been saying for a while now that this is the last presidential election in American history where the GOP will benefit from having a boring white guy as the presidential nominee.
This is not a point about racial animosity toward Barack Obama, perhaps the most exaggerated issue of the last four years. The key, as it relates to 2012, is not the white part of that formulation, it’s the boring part. The operatic nature of Obama’s campaign in 2008 and his inability to live up to the expectations he set for himself have created a market for bland Mr. Fixit types.
But going forward, the GOP needs to figure out a way to become more appealing to new constituencies, particularly younger voters and Latinos.
Boring white guys aren’t great for that project. But candidates like Ted Cruz are.
It’s hardly a novel insight that the GOP needs to deal with America’s changing demographics. Inside the Beltway, the conventional explanation for how Republicans should do that tends to boil down to pandering and capitulation. For instance, Hispanics care about immigration, we’re told, and therefore Republicans should adopt the same policies as the Democrats.
The substance of those policies aside, there are political problems with this thinking. First, Republicans rarely if ever win such bidding wars.
Second, there’s a faulty assumption here: that various ethnicities, and young people generally, are both monolithic and hardwired to support certain policies and are therefore immune to persuasion.
But young people almost by definition believe in things they eventually grow out of. And Latino voters are not monolithic in almost any sense: racially, ethnically, religiously, or ideologically.
For instance, contrary to much of what you’ve heard in the press, the Latino vote in the United States has been growing less Democratic over the last 30 years, according to Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics. Moreover, illegal immigration is nowhere near as important an issue for Latinos (as opposed to Latino activists) as the press makes it seem. In 2008, fewer than half (46 percent) of Latino voters who voted Democratic told exist pollsters that the issue was either “very” or “extremely” important to them. And nearly a third of Latinos who considered illegal immigration “very” or “extremely” important voted Republican.
Trende argues that most of the Democratic advantage among Latinos can be explained by income. Poor people tend to vote Democratic. There are a lot of poor Latinos in the U.S. Still, if you control for income, the Latino voter becomes less distinct from the average voter.
In short, Latinos lean decidedly Democratic, but they are decidedly persuadable as well. And young politicians like Cruz — and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, also of Cuban descent — have a better shot at persuading them.
White Republican politicians tend to be terrified of racial and ethnic activists and the journalists who empower them. This results in many GOP pols sounding condescending, pandering, or dull when they try to reach out to minorities.
Young, energetic, whip-smart, and philosophically coherent politicians like Cruz and Rubio can confidently appeal to Latinos without sounding condescending and without caving to liberal assumptions about how to win over Latinos. They’re also harder to demonize.
I mean, just imagine if Romney had mused about the nation’s dearth of Hispanic panhandlers.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.