Bush's Latino Play is a Sign of the Times

Like his father, President Bush II isn't all that great at articulating "the vision thing." But when it comes to Latino voters he does seem to have the "symbolism thing" down pat.

Even his most vocal detractors can't deny that the Bush Latino-outreach machine has been running at full throttle since the end of his presidential campaign -- which broke new ground in Republican efforts to attract Hispanic voters.

Once elected, the signs that this might be a kinder-and-gentler Republican Casa Blanca manifested themselves in the high-level appointments of moderate Latino Republicans, such as Mel Martinez to head the federal housing department and Alberto Gonzales as chief White House counsel.

There have been other friendly gestures to Latino voters during the past six months. Bush held a Cinco de Mayo celebration on the White House lawn -- though I suspect my Puerto Rican and Cuban American friends might have hoped for something a bit less Mex-o-centric. The president also sometimes delivers his weekly radio addresses in Spanish. And as we speak, Bush is floating a vague proposal to legalize potentially millions of undocumented immigrants, starting with Mexicans.

The issue for Latino voters is whether the public actions of our new "amigo" in the White House represent true policy advances that benefit the Latino community. Or is it mostly hollow tokenism meant to sway just enough Latino voters to the Republican ranks to beat Democrats in coming elections.

Common sense tells us it's a little bit of both. Symbolism has always been a part of the modus operandi of the White House, whether led by a Democrat or Republican. Note that politicians have never been shy about draping themselves -- symbolically speaking -- in the American flag, sometimes even at the risk of insulting our collective intelligence.

Plainly put, the GOP needs to win more Latino votes if it intends to keep winning elections. In Florida, tens of thousands of Latino voters cast ballots in last year's presidential race. Bush, as we know, ultimately won Florida by a mere 537 votes. With that in mind, one could fairly argue that Cuban American voters captured Florida for Bush. And if just a few hundred more Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans had turned out for Gore, the race could have gone the other way.

Such what-ifs aside, the real world demands of America's changing political landscape mean that Republicans finally find themselves compelled to pander to Latinos.

Given an option, Latinos, like most Americans, would prefer that politicians solicit our votes by proposing well-reasoned policies and programs. Barring that admittedly ideal scenario, many Latinos say it's nice to at least have Republicans pandering to us instead of ignoring us -- or attacking us -- for a change. Pandering has a negative connotation, but it sometimes produces positive results.

So far, Bush's outreach to Latinos has consisted of little true substance and a whole lot of symbolism. But that's not unusual in the early going of an administration. To be fair, it'll be awhile before we can say categorically whether the Bush agenda will actually help or hurt most Hispanics.

In the meantime, Bush's willingness to extend a symbolic abrazo, or hug, to the nation's Latinos should be at least read for what it is: a sign of the changing times.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of politicomagazine.com. E-mail the writer at Politico1@aol.com.

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