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Can GOP win over Latino hearts?

November 18, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND

Sometimes, the reaction to an election is more interesting than the election itself. And that’s what is happening right now, because never in the history of Earth has an entire race of people gone from outcasts to celebrities with such alacrity.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were trying with all our heart and soul to keep the children of Latinos out of college? And yet today, the people being championed as Republican (Republican!) presidential nominees in 2016 have names like Cruz and Rubio.

The evidence of a demographic shift, like the evidence for climate change, has been there all along of course, it’s just that some people need a hurricane or an election — which are pretty much one in the same — to get the message.

Suddenly, GOP fears that national elections may no longer be winnable have superseded fears that, because of illegal immigrants, “real Americans” are being squeezed out of meaningful employment, including hedge trimming and chicken picking.

Some conservatives who got Latino religion literally overnight (when they saw 70 percent of the Hispanic vote breaking for Obama) have noticed a totally plausible storyline: New immigrants share many core beliefs that are consistent with Republican ideology — at least as Republican ideology was understood as late as the 1980s.

These beliefs include hard work, equal opportunity, religious faith, American-style freedoms and family values. Had the racial-purity set not commandeered the Republican party — and had traditional Republicans not allowed themselves to be commandeered — a majority of these immigrants might today be proud, card-carrying Republicans. And Mitt Romney might be choosing new drapes for the Oval Office.

Instead, the question becomes this: Is it too late to win over Latino hearts and minds, or has the GOP permanently lost a generation’s worth (and beyond) of the fastest-growing segment of the population?

Fortunately for Republicans, it is always within the capacity of the Democrats to botch a sure thing. Any number of progressive “reforms” could alienate what is at heart a relatively conservative demographic.

The downside for Republicans is that, thanks to past behavior, they are already viewed with a considerable degree of suspicion. Lip service and empty gestures aren’t likely to help. Even putting a Latino at the top of the ticket in four years guarantees nothing, if the party does not act in the interests of hard-working people who are trying to get ahead.

Because that is the Hispanic demographic at its core.

And this demographic has not been around long enough to drink from the tax-cut Kool Aid that has essentially been the sole occupant of the GOP economic binder for the past 20 years.

Tax cuts have been so unrelentingly drilled into our skulls for so long that they dominate the discussion at a time when we should be asking why real wages over the same time period have failed to go up.

If wages rise in ways that are consistent with historical norms, tax cuts fail to resonate for the obvious reason that working men and women can better afford to pay those taxes.

Yet instead of saying “we deserve more,” workers have been trained to say “government deserves less.” And the chief winners in this strategy, obviously, are the wealthiest of the wealthy, the one and only group that seems to believe that in hard economic times it should be asked to sacrifice nothing.

Under this scenario, the most privileged win twice — they pay less both in taxes and in wages. And they egg on workers to tell the government that higher taxes are unaffordable — which they are, but only because the earnings-obsessed Wall Street culture has failed to pay them a living wage in the first place.

If the native work force does not see that it’s being used, the same probably can’t be said for new immigrants — who are treated even worse, and go along because they fear deportation.

So this will be the interesting part of the game: With the GOP’s new love of Hispanics, immigration reform might miraculously rise from the ashes. But if it does, an emboldened Latino work force might also start agitating for higher wages. Already the two fastest-growing American unions are heavy in kitchen workers, janitors, health care employees, poultry processors and hotel staff. No dots need be connected.

And the ultimate outcome and ultimate paradox might be this: A large, newly legalized and newly organized work force might finally break the long-standing pattern of wage stagnation, significantly improving the lives of so many who have agitated to keep immigrants from crossing the border to begin with.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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