What Romney Should Have Learned from Nixon

The last time Republicans gathered en masse in Florida was in 1972. Then, President Richard Nixon led jubilant supporters at the Miami Convention Center to kick off his successful reelection campaign.

In that election, Nixon had both a Hispanic strategy and a Southern strategy. He had moved the GOP away from Eisenhower’s courting of African Americans in an effort to woo two new targets. Among Latinos, he was particularly interested in the growing Mexican American community in the Southwest.

Not that Nixon didn’t appreciate Florida’s Hispanic community. Four years earlier he had won the state, in part, because veteran Tampa Democrat Manuel Garcia and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo “turned the picture around from [George] Wallace to Nixon in rather dramatic fashion,” according to his own campaign analysis.

A 1972 reelection brochure, “Al Fin, un Amigo en la Casa Blanca” (Finally, a Friend in the White House), reveals a President Nixon championing Great Society programs. He bragged about expanding bilingual education, federal housing, and helping inner-city, Spanish-speaking youth.

Nixon also focused on business. According to the campaign circular, “He established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise to help start new businesses owned by Spanish-Americans” and invested millions in federal revenue to help ensure their success.

Nixon also appointed a record number of Latinos to top-level federal posts. Phillip Sanchez served as the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Carlos Villarreal was administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. And Romana Banuelos operated as Treasurer of the United States.

As a result of this sustained effort, Nixon won a third of the Latino vote. In his eventual landslide, the Hispanic community did not ultimately account for the winning margin. But if the 1972 race had been as razor thin as his election in 1968, the Hispanic vote would likely have put Nixon over the top.

The import of the ever-expanding Latino vote seemingly has to be periodically relearned, especially by Republicans. Their party is reflexively anti-immigrant. In 1928, the GOP and its backers pilloried the Democratic candidate, Al Smith, for being Catholic, which they associated with rum-drinking, non-English-speaking, unwashed immigrants.

John F. Kennedy, in 1960, was similarly criticized for his faith. To his fundamentalist religious critics, this made him less than fully American.

In California in 1994, the Republicans brought out the old playbook, pushing Proposition 187 to deny undocumented immigrants access to public education and health care services. They succeeded in the short run, but the long-term price has been huge, as Latinos have made California a one-party Democratic state.

The other challenge, ironically, is that Nixon’s Southern strategy succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. The Southerners have not only become Republicans, but they have literally taken over the party and transformed it. In the process, they have disavowed earlier support for government programs to assist working families needing a hand up as championed by Nixon. But they have retained the visceral dislike of “the other,” lauding—as has presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney—Arizona’s “show me the papers” law.

By all accounts, 2012 is looking to be a close election. If it is, Latinos could well determine who is elected as the next president. Mitt Romney may ultimately wish he had adopted a little more of Nixon’s sensibilities and not adopted such a strong anti-immigrant position in the primary, a stance that is understandably interpreted by many to reflect his insensitivity to, if not antipathy toward, Latinos.

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My guest column above was written for La Gaceta, Tampa’s 90-year-old Latino newspaper, but should be of interest to blog readers in California, and other states.

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