MIAMI — George W. Bush jokes that he got his father’s eyes and his mother’s mouth. Barbara Bush has no trouble saying what she really thinks, no matter whom it offends.
Baby brother is the same way. Jeb Bush, the popular former governor of Florida and possible Republican presidential candidate — albeit, more likely in 2016 — has strong feelings about how Democrats play politics with Hispanics while Republicans play with demographic dynamite by alienating them.
Bush recently told Univision’s Jorge Ramos — in impeccable Spanish — that while it’s easy to focus on GOP opposition to immigration reform, “we should also recognize that Democrats don’t want to resolve this either.” Bush accused President Obama of wanting “to create a wedge to win votes.”
Asked by Ramos if he thought immigration reform isn’t a priority for Obama and Democrats, Bush fired back: “It’s a political priority.”
But Bush was equally blunt in criticizing his own party. When Ramos asked if he thought Republicans had come down too hard on immigrants and Latinos, Bush admitted: “Some Republicans have not behaved well in that aspect.”
There are fences to be mended. And that’s one of the goals of the Hispanic Leadership Network, an organization that wants to connect the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic community and the “center-right movement.” It staged its inaugural conference in Miami, and I was invited to participate on a media panel.
Bush co-chaired the conference along with former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Another organizer of the event was former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, CEO of the American Action Network, the conservative Washington-based political action group that founded the HLN.
Having spent most of his life around the Hispanic community, including having been married to Mexican-born Columba Garnica Gallo de Bush for more than 35 years, Bush believes that most Hispanics are center-right. And so, he told Ramos, Republicans “need to have a conversation” with Latinos because of their shared values.
Bush told the gathering that, because of the growth of the Latino population nationwide, it would be “incredibly stupid” for the Republican Party to ignore these votes. Frankly, governor, “ignoring” would be a step up in GOP-Hispanic relations.
More often than not, what happens now is that Republican candidates at the local, state and national level use Hispanics as a convenient foil to scare up votes from whites who are terrified of the coming demographic realignment and unsure of where they fit in the new scheme.
The terrified include right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who pounced on Bush for “race-baiting” and called his remarks “divisive” and “destructive of conservatism.” Levin also accused Bush of not being “that bright” and lacking a basic “understanding of the greatness of this nation.”
Levin has it backward. Repairing the breach between Republicans and Hispanics won’t destroy conservatism; it will help save it. And much of the greatness of this nation is wrapped up, first and foremost, in its immigrant tradition, which some conservatives seem to want to unravel by limiting legal immigration.
No one summed up the GOP’s predicament better than Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the former Republican congressman from Florida. Since the United States is a nation of immigrants, he said, the American people would probably never again allow Republicans to become the country’s majority party if they see them as being anti-immigrant.
I’ll add: With Hispanics on track to make up 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050 and likely to decide elections not just in Texas, California and Florida but all over the country, the perception that the GOP is hostile to Latinos is also hazardous to the health of the party.
Yet, even at a gathering like this, where many agree that the Republican Party has a problem with Hispanics, there were those who clung to the idea that the issue is simply one of tone — easily fixed by a few turns of the public relations screwdriver.
Wrong. As I said during my panel, the GOP doesn’t just have a problem with tone. It’s not that simple. When it comes to immigration, the Republican message is toxic. There is too much dishonesty, too much racism, and too many simplistic solutions to what is a complicated problem.
If the GOP wants to make a serious play for Hispanic voters in 2012 and beyond, this has to change. The party is struggling with demons. It doesn’t need a publicist. It needs an exorcist.
— Ruben Navarrette’s e-mail address is email@example.com.