Back to Square One on Latino Outreach

Republican Don Young's statement about immigrants shows the GOP still has a long way to go to woo Latinos.

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U.S. Rep. Don Young addresses a Choose Respect rally in front of the state Capitol on Thursday, March 28, 2013, in Juneau, Alaska. Also pictured, from far left, are Saralynn Tabachnick, executive director of AWARE Inc., Sen. Anna Fairclough, Sen. Peter Micciche, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, Sen. Johnny Ellis, directly behind Young, and Rep. Bob Herron. Young, after the rally, spoke with reporters, and said he was not concerned about an ethics investigation surrounding him.

The Republican party, seeking to expand its potential base, is planning significant outreach to Latino citizens. They probably shouldn't put Representative Don Young in the ads.

Young, a veteran Alaska GOP congressman, went on a local radio show and started chatting about the changing labor market. Said Young:

My father had a ranch; we used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

The remarkable thing, aside from the easy use of Young's ethnic epithet, is that he seemed to think the point of his reminiscence was the changeover from human labor to machines (though the term "wetback," an offensive slur used to describe Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande to the US to find work, should never be applied to any human being).

After a predictable and rightful uproar, Young apologized, sort of, telling KTTU-TV:

During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The problem with Young's apology is not that it's insincere—it's that he doesn't even seem to understand why he's being attacked for his remarks. Young is treating the episode as though he used the word "Negro" instead of "African-American," or "homosexual" instead of "gay" or "lesbian."

The problem the GOP is having with Latinos is only partly rooted in policy; not all Hispanics are opposed to tough border security. And on social issues such as abortion, the Republican party may be more in line with the thinking of Latinos, many of whom are Roman Catholic.

The problem the Republicans are having—and this painful truth was smartly pointed out in the GOP's own report earlier this month—is that they are behind the times. They seem to have little or no idea who and what makes up America these days. The Mitt Romney campaign was convinced it was going to win because it was in complete denial about the demographic makeup of the electorate. It simply is not dominated anymore by white men. And if the GOP wants to win national elections in the future, it must come to terms with that.

If there was one lesson for the GOP from the 2012 elections, it is that you cannot personally insult people and expect them to vote for you. You can oppose abortion rights, and some women, perhaps many, will vote for you anyway, either because they are also opposed to the procedure or because it's not a priority issue for them. But tell women they are lying or worse if they claim to get pregnant from a rape—since, as a GOP Senate candidate wrongly insisted, only "legitimate rape" results in pregnancy—and you will get a groundswell of female voters lining up to defeat you.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Young's comments reflect both sets of troubles for the party. They were insulting, and also backward. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, rightly denounced his GOP colleague, saying in a statement:

Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families. They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials. The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity.

Cornyn's blunt statement was a good start. But the party has a long way to go to heal the rifts with Latino voters.

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