There were three official Democratic responses to President Bush’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night. There was the foreign-policy response–”America must be a light to the world, not just a missile”–delivered by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. There was the domestic-policy response–”We can also show our patriotism while strengthening agriculture and rural America by labeling all food products with their country of origin”–delivered by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. And then there was the Spanish-language response–the first ever–delivered by New Mexico governor, and former Clinton energy secretary, Bill Richardson.
The Pelosi/Daschle speeches, dutifully televised by network- and cable-television-news outlets, followed the standard format of opposition-party responses. They faulted the president on a variety of issues but emphasized the need for all Americans to work together. In line with tradition, they did not make starkly political appeals like, “Please vote for Democrats this November.” In fact, neither lawmaker mentioned the election at all.
The Richardson address was another matter. Billed as the first-ever Democratic response for Spanish speakers — party chairman Terry McAuliffe called it a “historic moment” — it was nothing at all like a traditional response and was in fact an openly political appeal for Hispanic votes. (The following description is based on the English translation of Richardson’s remarks provided by the Democratic National Committee.)
Richardson’s address was mostly about the president’s immigration initiative. There was a certain irony in that, since he began his speech by saying, “The majority of American citizens believe that as Hispanics we only care about issues like immigration and civil rights.” Even though Richardson said Hispanics in fact care deeply about all the major issues facing Americans, he made only cursory mentions of those issues–for example, he did not discuss Iraq at all, except to say that Hispanics are serving there.
Instead, Richardson focused on immigration. He called the president’s plan “a small step forward” that included “some positive points.” But he said the plan was a “dead end” for Hispanics because it “does not help immigrant workers to obtain the golden dream: legalization and residency without impunity.”
Richardson also used the issue as an opening to attack the Republican party in general, saying “The Republican Party has collectively ruined much for us.” Now, he said, Bush’s plan “is even being strongly opposed by conservative members of his own party.”
Then Richardson addressed the upcoming election. “We are prepared to elect the next President of the United States, and with our growing numbers we can decide the election,” he said. “In this election, the Hispanic vote will be critical because of our large numbers in states like Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, California, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.”
Richardson urged Hispanics to register to vote and then said, “The Democratic Party has always been with us, and we should not forget who really are our true friends and allies.” And that was the end of Richardson’s brief speech.
Such a baldly political appeal would have violated the decorum of the nationally televised addresses delivered by the president and his Democratic rivals. But in the Spanish-language speech, unseen by most Americans and ignored by the media, Richardson was able to turn a response to the State of the Union address into a frankly political commercial.