The modern Republican Party has a major problem with Hispanic voters and watching the party struggle to address that problem increasingly reminds me of the great Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a -dope” strategy during his bruising fight in Zaire in 1974. In this case Barack Obama is playing Ali and the GOP is cast as George Foreman, the guy who punched himself out of contention, swinging wildly while Ali crouched against the ropes and survived.
On the very day the GOP issued a highly critical 100-page report on its performance during the 2012 election and what it might do to get back on track, Republican Senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa and David Vitter of Louisiana, indicated that they will oppose Obama’s pick to be Secretary of Labor. That pick, of course, is Thomas Perez currently the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and a man with a classic personal resume that includes being the son of Dominican immigrants and a Harvard Law PhD.
Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions must not have gotten the memo about Republicans wanting to reach out to Hispanic voters after the party’s dismal showing in the last election with that rapidly growing demographic group. Sessions termed the Perez nomination “unfortunate and needlessly divisive.” Ali couldn’t have done a better job of setting up the rope-a-dope. As Republicans prepare to throw wasted punches at the highest ranking Hispanic Cabinet appointee, Obama pivots to his talking points about inclusion, living the American dream and finding a place in the vast ocean of American politics for everyone – especially the demographic group that will increasingly decide elections in the 21st Century.
Here is just one telling statistic about the GOP Hispanic problem as compiled by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: in the 2012 election just one in ten Republican voters were non-white. That is a remarkable number. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that is white has steadily fallen from nearly 90% in 1980 to just over 70% now. Little wonder that the GOP has lost four of the last five national elections as its base – older white voters – decreases as a percentage of the overall voting population. These numbers also help explain why some in the GOP seem so hung up on making it more difficult, particularly for non-whites, to vote and why the party’s national base has dwindled to a few very conservative western states and the south of the old Confederacy.
Take a look around the west to gauge the GOP’s challenge with the changing demographics of the electorate. Arizona’s population is now 30% Hispanic, Idaho’s Hispanic population is more than 11%, while Oregon’s is 12% and all are growing rapidly. Oregon’s Hispanic population, for example, has grown by 64% since 2000. Similar numbers exist in Colorado, Nevada and Texas. California’s demographics likely mean the state is out of play for the GOP for the foreseeable future.
The left cross that follows the right jab on these demographic numbers signals even more long-term worry for the national GOP. While Mitt Romney, the champion of “self deportation,” gathered in 27% of the Hispanic vote last year – the lowest percentage in modern times for a Republican – the party has actually been losing Hispanic voters for years. Seventy percentage of Hispanics now firmly associated with the Democratic Party, a number that has shown an almost unbroken upward trend for more that the last decade.
The heart of the problem for the GOP is, of course, immigration policy. “If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the GOP’s new post-election report states. “In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”
But in true rope-a-dope fashion one of the party’s best connections to Hispanic voters former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while trying to navigate the choppy waters to his right and left, recently sent wildly conflicting messages about his own position on whether real reform includes a “path to citizenship” for people who have come to the U.S. illegally. The party’s two highest ranking Hispanic elected officials – Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are so beholden to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that they can’t get on the same page regarding immigration policy.
In the final analysis, however, the rope-a-dope comparison really doesn’t work for one basic reason. In his famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle Muhammad Ali absorbed tremendous punishment from George Foreman before Foreman finally wore himself out and lost the fight. When it comes to cementing the Democratic hold on Hispanic voters Barack Obama really isn’t taking any punches, or perhaps more correctly the GOP isn’t landing any. Obama can set back and watch as old, white GOP Senators like Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley wear themselves out over the appointment of an Hispanic to run the U.S. Department of Labor. Such opposition sends a powerful message that the old, white party just isn’t interested in the new, emerging majority. In the end Obama wins even if he loses on a Cabinet appointment as it becomes more and more obvious where the fastest growing demographic group in nation feels most at home.
History will record that 31 Republican Senators – Sessions and Grassley included – voted against the confirmation Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the first Hispanic appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The vast majority of those Republican “no” votes came from the South and West; from places like Texas, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada were before long that kind of vote will become a litmus test of whether you have put out the welcome mat or slammed the door shut. Here’s a guess that failing to cast an historic vote in 2009 to put the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court won’t look so good in the history books.
In 1967 when Lyndon Johnson nominated the great civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to become the first African-American on the high court only 11 Senators voted against his confirmation. Ten of those Senators were white southern Democrats who made the raw political calculation that they couldn’t risk the home state political backlash that would follow a vote to put a black man on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Democrats fundamentally changed as a national party as a result of Johnson and civil rights in the 1960’s and, as Johnson correctly forecast, that change cost Democrats the South. But it also helped guarantee that African-American voters would remain solidly in the Democratic camp in every subsequent national election.
The question for current Republicans is whether they are willing to make such a fundamental shift; a shift that will rile the Tea Party and the aging, white base of the GOP? It is worth noting that the lone Republican vote against Thurgood Marshall in 1967 was Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a fellow who would find himself right at home in the current very conservative, very white Republican Party. Enough said.