Jewish World Review Nov. 23, 2004 / 10 Kislev, 5765

Zev Chafets

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Consumer Reports

A better pitch to Hispanics | On the day President Bush tapped Alberto Gonzales to be the next attorney general, Gonzales, the son of Mexican immigrants, came to the White House, faced the press and said: "Just give me a chance to prove myself. That is a common prayer in my community."

This prayer is a near-perfect formulation of the GOP's new message to Hispanic-Americans, now the country's largest ethnic group. It mixes Reagan-style rugged individualism (give me a chance to prove myself) with old-school FDR ethnic appeal (the "my community" part). And, unlike so many other prayers, this one evidently works. When he is approved by the Senate, Gonzales will become the highest Mexican-American federal official in memory.

This is not accidental. Republicans got somewhere between 39% and 44% of the Hispanic vote in the last election, depending on who's counting. Even the low figure represents a large improvement over the GOP's usual showing. It doesn't take a pollster to tell you that Hispanics - and especially Mexican-American Hispanics - are now up for grabs.

The Democrats have an offer on the table: Hispanics can be the brown hue in their Rainbow Coalition. As such, they will be eligible for all the affirmative action, government entitlements and political support that are conferred upon aggrieved communities.

The Republicans have a different offer: first-class citizenship. The GOP can't say this out loud, of course, but in return for support, it is willing to transform Hispanics from "people of color" into white Americans.

Some Hispanics, particularly in big northern cities, will reject this Republican bargain out of hand. Many see themselves as Democrats, intimately connected to the African-American community and other marginalized groups by ties of economic and class interest.

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But out in the country, especially in Red State America, a great many Hispanics don't regard themselves that way at all. In the 2000 census, roughly half of all Hispanics (and more than half of Mexican-Americans) identified themselves racially as white. Many others left the space for racial self-identification blank.

These are the people the GOP wants to reach with a message that is less economic than social: Latinos - who are already joining evangelical Protestant churches in huge numbers - will be welcome in the pews, schools, barracks and workplaces of Republican America (meaning white America; according to preliminary data, Bush carried nearly 60% of white voters). Hispanics' patriotism and religiosity will be respected, their immigrant work ethic admired. In Bush parlance, Mexican-Americans are "willing employees," not oppressed masses - folks who can raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

Bush's liberalized Mexican immigration policy is designed to make this point. His second-term appointments will, too.

The President almost certainly will nominate Miguel Estrada for the Supreme Court. Like Gonzales, he is a social conservative from a humble immigrant background. A role model. Living proof that you can make it if you try.

It is by no means certain that the GOP can actually close the deal with the Hispanic vote. The unions will fight back, and so will progressive Hispanic interest groups.

But Hispanics, like other immigrants, do not want to remain outsiders forever. They hope to join the mainstream and, in the words of Alberto Gonzales, make something of themselves. The key to that is acceptance in and by the American mainstream.

That is what Bush is now offering. He knows (and so does his brother Jeb) that within a few years Hispanics will make up almost 20% of the population - enough to determine elections. If the Democrats hope to remain a competitive national party, they will have to make these voters a counteroffer better than certified victimhood.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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