Republicans give us their back, and Democrats give us demagoguery. That's what Latinos are getting from the presidential candidates, and nowhere was that more evident than in the debate hosted by the Spanish-language Univision TV network Sunday night from the campus of the University of Miami.
On Latino issues, the Democrats came across as naive, uninformed and patronizing. But the Republicans did even worse. Their separate debate had to be cancelled because only one candidate — Sen. John McCain of Arizona — had agreed to show up.
Sunday's live TV debate, the first ever broadcast in Spanish, was a missed opportunity for Democrats to show that, instead of expecting to win the Hispanic vote by default, as they usually do, this time they were ready to earn and inspire support from Latinos.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
All we heard was more of the same tired rhetoric — nothing new about the many issues that concern Latinos. It was clear that they were all going to play it safe. Why take risks when, considering the Republican alternatives, they feel that Latinos will have no choice but to vote for them?
And of course, they are right. With the fear-mongering, anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by many GOP conservatives in recent years, with all their mean-spirited efforts to suppress the Spanish language and make Latinos feel unwelcome even when they are naturalized U.S. citizens or born here, Republicans have blown away the Hispanic vote that President Bush had cultivated by falsely claiming that he was a "compassionate conservative."
All the Democrats have to do, instead of taking controversial positions that could alienate some voters, is remind Latinos of the draconian measures introduced by some Republicans when the GOP had control of Congress.
For example, Clinton recalled a piece of legislation that would have penalized those who help illegal immigrants. "It would have criminalized the good Samaritan," she said. "It would have criminalized Jesus Christ."
Unless McCain wins the Republican nomination, which doesn't seem likely, the Democrats know that they can sit back and expect the Hispanic vote to fall into their laps. Democrats also know that the Hispanic vote in key Electoral College states is likely to give them the margin of victory. And yet they know that they have to do very little to earn it. Some symbolic gestures, like showing up at a Spanish-language debate, will do the trick, they figure.
Never mind coming up with some new and exciting initiatives that will stimulate Latino voters. In fact, during Sunday's debate it was clear that some of the leading Democratic candidates were more concerned about not alienating other Americans who may feel threatened by Latinos.
When the Democrats were asked why there is so much emphasis on securing our border with Mexico, and not with Canada, especially since no terrorists have come through our southern border, and when they were asked if they were willing to promote Spanish as a second national language of the United States, most of the Democrats ran for cover.
No, senor, they were not going to give any ammunition to immigrant and Latino bashers to turn xenophobic Americans against them. They'll take the xenophobic vote, especially since there is little chance of losing the Hispanic vote anyway.
For Latinos, the differences between New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich were very hard to find.
Only Delaware Sen. Joe Biden missed the debate, which was moderated in Spanish by Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas. The candidates heard and responded to the questions in English through a group of interpreters who provided the audience with simultaneous translations back to Spanish.
On the question of a fence along the Canadian border, none of them answered directly. Instead, they insisted that national security has to be a key part of immigration reform legislation. They kept saying they favor a comprehensive plan. Some said they were committed to doing something about it in their first year as president. But they offered very little specifics. They even avoided explaining whether they favor a path to legalization for the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.
Surely some Latinos were screaming at their televisions, asking, "What would you do about the 12 million?" But they got no answer.
When they spoke about Latin America, they couldn't get past complaining that our hemispheric neighbors have been neglected by the Bush administration — as if we didn't already know that. They offered no specifics on how they would deal with the region's swing to the anti-American left. In fact, instead of standing firm against Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, they naively explained that they would seek to establish better relations with Chavez and lift the economic embargo against the Castro dictatorship.
"The refusal of Republican candidates to address the Hispanic community, not just at this forum but in national Hispanic gatherings in recent months, speaks volumes," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean in a statement released after the debate. "Sadly, it is consistent with the Republican Party's strategy to scapegoat Hispanic immigrants for political gain."
Dean said the Democratic candidates "showed a stark contrast with the divisiveness and hate-filled rhetoric coming from the Republican presidential candidates and from their shrinking party."
That's all true, and it's also the reason why Democrats feel they can take the Hispanic vote for granted.
To find out more about Miguel Perez, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.