The lights went out on the Republican renaissance when the Arizona Legislature criminalized the presence of illegal immigrants in their state. Or, at least that is popular wisdom.
Hispanics constitute the fastest-growing segment of the population. They are rooting in cities and towns across America, transforming the religious and cultural landscape. Homogenized by the reach of Univision and Telemundo Spanish-language TV networks, Hispanics have mobilized to become a visible and frequently noisy player in the nation’s rallies, street protests and political debate. Their leadership is largely Democratic.
The anti-profiling and civil-justice debates are rich fare for Democratic operatives. The plucked Republican chicken soon will be in every Democratic pot, and the sun is setting for Republican governance as future generations of Hispanics will reliably vote Democrat, the story goes. Democratic dominance is assured as a combination of Hispanic solidarity and black solidity will make Republican officeholders as rare as roses in winter.
But before our friends on the left break out their vuvuzelas, they need to take a look at Puerto Rico.
On Jan. 2, 2009, the commonwealth installed Luis Fortuno as its governor. He was elected by the largest margin in 44 years, the same year that Barack Obama and other Democrats swept to victory. Though the island doesn’t use the same party nomenclature as the 50 states, Mr. Fortuna is a Republican and the Republican National Committee member from Puerto Rico. The commonwealth’s newly installed House speaker and Senate president are similarly from the right. The governor’s inaugural message was unquenchably Ronald Reagan.
The owner of the government’s checking account “is the working people, and the government must adjust its spending to match its revenues,” the new Republican governor said, adding that the government “must be smaller to be more agile and effective.” Borrowing the best from the Gipper, Mr. Fortuno concluded that “government is no longer the solution to all your problems, but rather has become a problem that we must all strive to fix.”
Recently, the governor restated those themes and put them into a U.S.-Hispanic context.
Hispanics are natural Republicans: They are pro-life and socially conservative. Puerto Rico, for example, is 60 percent Catholic and 30 percent evangelical Protestant. They are fiscally conservative: Homeownership in the commonwealth is an astonishing 73 percent, far greater than in the 50 states and other territories. Hispanics believe that a “dollar in the hands of the people will last longer than a dollar in the hands of government.” They are anti-tax. Education is viewed as the oxygen for social mobility. Parents want choices in education, including charter schools. Welfare is described by the governor as “destructive of the family unit” — a unit, by the way, that expects such old-fashioned practices as enjoying meals together.
Mr. Fortuno says that he came into the Republican fold under Ronald Reagan. His first 1½ years in office are pointedly Reaganesque. His inherited deficit of $3.2 billion has been slashed by $2 billion. Government salaries are frozen, operating expenses cut 10 percent and the plum high-paying political jobs hacked by 30 percent.
How does all of this figure into the future of the Republican Party? Plenty, says Mr. Fortuno. Hispanics need to know what the Republican Party stands for, he says, and when they do, they will vote Republican. George W. Bush carried 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. In Florida’s Interstate 4 corridor, 500,000 Puerto Rican Americans gave 50 percent of their vote to the Republican candidate.
Hispanics need to hear the late Jack Kemp’s inclusive, pro-growth message. The Republican message must be the “beacon of light” message: lower taxes, schools that actually educate and government that is humble and responsive. Remember, cautions Mr. Fortuno, that Hispanics are “suspicious of big government by nature,” because in their experience, “government is oppressive and corrupt.” If you want Hispanic votes, run against oppressive and corrupt government and you will win.
How does the party of Lincoln get out of the ditch? Don’t “dis” Hispanic voters. No more “Party of No.”
“The Hispanic community feels rejected,” Mr. Fortuno observes, and “the discourse has turned ugly.” Republicans must “reach out to Latinos and stress our policies.” The Hispanic community is now more monolithic and “if one community is rejected, all of us are rejected,” Mr. Fortuna says.
While 95 percent of Hispanic parents encourage their children to speak English, it is still not advisable to “dis” Spanish, the governor warns: Don’t act like “we don’t want you.”
Mr. Fortuna concludes that moving these new Americans to the political right will not be difficult: They are already Republican. “We don’t need to change our policies,” the governor observes. “We need to underscore our policies.” Pro-life, limited government, low-tax, pro-family, pro-work immigrants will never last long in the party of dependency and victimization. They are too independent and proud for that. Their legacy is that of Lincoln, not of Jefferson. All that is needed is a gentle and inclusive nudge. Hispanics will cross the river and never cross back.
• Frank Keating is a former Oklahoma governor.
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