We apologize for interrupting your fantasies about life afterNovember 7 with a flashback to darker times. A preelection (andhopefully not premature) bout of schadenfreude has led us torevisit the height of the Karl Rove boom, that bygone era whenPresident Bush's architect openly compared himself to Mark Hanna,the brains behind William McKinley and the
Republican Realignment of 1896. Back when Rove regularly made thisnerdy yet grandiose claim, he would wax lyrical about Latinos.Immigrants from south of the border weren't just sociallyconservative and entrepreneurial--huddled masses yearning tobreathe free markets--they were destined to form the bedrock ofRove's implacable Republican majority.
If Rove still believes his old paeans to Latinos, he has one strangeway of showing his admiration. Consider a few snippets fromRepublican campaign commercials now dogging channel surfers. InNorth Carolina, House candidate Vernon Robinson is airing a spotdepicting a white man who gazes at a sign that reads, help wanted:bi-lingual only! A narrator helpfully adds: "These illegal alienspay no taxes but take our jobs and our government handouts, thenspit in our face and burn our flags." Then, one Latino man grabshis crotch and another flips the camera a middle finger.
Down in Georgia, Republican incumbent Mac Collins has used similarmaterial to bludgeon his opponent, Jim Marshall. More in sorrowthan in anger, the ad intones, "Jim Marshall joined his liberalleader Nancy Pelosi and voted to waste our tax dollars printingelection ballots in Spanish." It's a complaint interrupted by thevillainous voice of a Mexican bandido sneering, "Muchas gracias,Senor Jim Marshall."
Over on YouTube, you can uncover a vast archive of similarly classyGOP ads. The genre has several hallmarks: It evokes a fear oflawlessness and a sense of growing social decay; it impugnsopponents with a lack of patriotism (mitchell against englishlanguage, reads the bottom of the screen in one of RepresentativeJ.D. Hayworth's ads). And, in many ways, these spots are far cruderthan the racial code words used by the GOP back when it relied onits vaunted post-segregation Southern strategy. But the connectionbetween these ads and the old Willie Horton-style productions isclear enough. In 1990, for instance, Jesse Helms, seekingreelection against a black candidate, aired an ad that blared: "Youneeded that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had togive it to a minority because of a racial quota." While the targetof Republican ads has shifted, the language remains nearlyidentical. "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified,"Vernon Robinson's inflammatory ad announces, as the viewerwitnesses a white woman cradling her head in her hands. "But theygave it to an illegal alien so they could pay him under the table."
It wasn't supposed to be like this. When he ran for president in2000, George W. Bush implicitly promised that the era of Republicanracebaiting was over. If compassionate conservatism meant anything,it was intended to exchange carefully calibrated attacks on welfarequeens for a new Republican willingness to talk about the urbanpoor. But the true hallmark of the Bush ethos of tolerance was itspolitical embrace of Latinos. Remember when el presidente blurtedout Spanish phrases in nearly every stump appearance? For a time,he seemed to lead a devastating repudiation of California GovernorPete Wilson and his particularly virulent brand of immigrantbashing.
Of course, you can't completely fault Bush for the resurgence in hisparty of anti-Latino sentiments. For whatever it's worth, he hasmade a point of naming Latinos to high posts in his administration.And, far more importantly, he backed a plan that would haveprovided a pathway to legalization for millions of illegalimmigrants--albeit a plan with significant flaws.
But the current moment raises serious doubts about his initialsincerity. Back in the late '90s, with a growing economy, there washardly any price to be paid for encomiums to the immigrant spirit.The mood has obviously shifted--and not just thanks to demagogueslike Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs. Renewed anxieties overglobalization--and the corrosive atmosphere fostered by growingincome inequality--have helped make pinatas out of border-crossers.In this climate, when the demands of partisan politics are intension with his commitments to pluralism, Bush has shown hardlyany willingness to stop the party he leads from spewing vileracism. Muchas gracias, Senor Bush.