I remember in 1996 when Bill Richardson, making the media rounds at that year’s Democratic National Convention, said the Latino vote would be key to reelecting Bill Clinton. Even 16 years ago, candidates wrote off Latinos at their peril, but his analysis felt a little too far ahead of the curve.
After this year’s convention — now that millions of voters and the entire political world know the name Julian Castro and countless other Latino elected and community leaders — we can say the Latino vote is here for good, and it is here for big stakes. There have been plenty of announcements, plenty of arrivals and plenty of breaking-out parties. That process is over. The curtain has fallen. If anyone doubts that Latinos will be a big part of our political future, this election is going to be a very big wake-up call.
I’m a Democrat, and it’s no surprise that I found Castro’s speech, and many others I heard, very compelling. I think the surprise in November will not be that Democrats agreed with what they heard, but that a lot of previously undecided people — independents, moderates, unregistered voters, young people — agreed with it as well. The contrast between the Democratic vision of America and that found at the Republican National Convention, which was devoid of policy and had nothing to say to the Latino community, is going to play out again and again in thousands of ways until the election. That contrast will not benefit the Republican Party.
The fact that Castro’s story tracks the aspirations of millions of Americans who heard it that night is a testament to its genuine power, and to the growing strength of the Latino political experience. In a “Fox News Latino” interview after his speech, Castro predicted President Obama will get 70 percent of the Latino vote. People aren’t just taking that prediction seriously, they’re debating whether it’s too low. Republicans know this. Unfortunately for them, their responses are counterproductive.
Consider what we saw at the Republican convention: a parade of high-profile Latino conservatives was presented as an argument, all by itself, to vote for Mitt Romney. The speakers were not presented as emissaries from the Latino community, or signs of a changing and better future, but modern-day Horatio Alger stories who tried to prove that when you vote Republican, you too can succeed in America.
This is simply not going to work. It shows a profound Republican misunderstanding of the Latino community. Latino voters are not impressed by window dressing any more than other voters. They know the difference between style and substance. They know that when Castro talks about an America that includes rather than separates us, he’s telling the truth and speaking to their hopes for their own children. They also know that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio votes to cut Head Start and child nutrition programs and Medicaid even while he talks about his own exclusive version of the American Dream.
We saw more than a Latino-friendly Democratic Party last week. We saw an America-friendly Democratic Party, a party that truly has room for everyone. We saw the deeply moving Pledge of Allegiance led by one of our party’s still-brightest stars, Gabrielle Giffords, whose recovery is a national inspiration to commitment and overcoming long odds.
The pundits tell us the Democratic Party should be worried this year because Romney has more money, the economy isn’t roaring back and Republicans are unified around a message of Tea Party reformism. The party I saw wasn’t worried. We were ecstatic. We were excited about creating more jobs in a second Obama term, thrilled to talk about all the good the Affordable Care Act has done despite Republican obstruction and proud to be the party that put Castro on that stage.
You’re going to see more of those moments in every election until Republicans stop treating Latinos as a group to be appeased and start treating them as a lasting part of “real America.” If they don’t … well, we remember who won in 1996.
Grijalva is the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.