Florida Senator Marco Rubio takes the stage Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, following in the footsteps of previous convention speakers with names such as Sandoval, Valenzuela, Cruz and Fortuno. On Tuesday night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an Indian American, briefly held center stage.
This portrait gallery of 21st-century American diversity is a welcome sight -- not because it’s a convincing picture of the Republican Party in 2012, but because it’s an acknowledgment that the party’s future depends on making it one.
We have been here before. At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, it sometimes seemed the only requirement for a cameo on stage was a black, brown or Asian face and a willingness to associate with Republicans. When George W. Bush won the presidency, however, he proved there had been more than stagecraft at work. He appointed General Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to powerful positions and aggressively courted Hispanic voters. Bush moved his party forward on race, earning more than 4 in 10 Hispanic votes in 2004 and even increasing his share of the black vote, from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004.
That progress has unraveled. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week pegged the share of the black vote for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at an eye-popping zero percent. In polls of Hispanics, Romney consistently falls short of the share of the vote won by Arizona Senator John McCain in 2008, when the Republican candidate lost Hispanics by more than 2-to-1 to Barack Obama. Asians, the nation’s highest-earning ethnic group, also lean strongly Democratic.
Although the U.S. is 63 percent non-Hispanic white, in most presidential primaries this year the Republican electorate was more than 90 percent white. Given demographic trends -- about 2 million more Hispanics will be eligible to vote in this presidential election than in the last -- something’s got to give.
The party desperately needs to heed the advice of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and “reach out to a much broader audience.” Instead, it has been working overtime to alienate nonwhite voters with harsh anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, Alabama and other states, and with political gambits (mostly combating the nonexistent threat of voter fraud) to restrict voting access to suppress minority votes.
Republican leaders have shown no inclination to restrain Tea Party rhetoric about “taking back” the country (from whom?), and in his primary campaign Romney assured nativists that the way to deal with illegal immigration is to make immigrants so miserable that they “self-deport.” In a danger sign for the fall, the Romney campaign is now running an ad falsely accusing President Obama of gutting work requirements for welfare and extending handouts to the undeserving.
It’s possible that Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, will succeed one last time with appeals to racial resentment and what amounts to an all-white electoral strategy. But partisan voter laws and symbolic rebel yells promise a toxic legacy that could threaten the party for years to come.
At some point very soon, Republicans will have to acclimate themselves to the multiracial reality of the 21st century. To win national elections, they must be able to win nonwhite votes. That will require leaders who look like Rubio and Haley and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. More important, it will require more expansive attitudes about race and a less cramped and archaic definition of who is an American. Supporting more visas for highly skilled immigrants, for example, would show a welcome openness and help the economy besides.
There are plenty of conservative fish in the electoral sea, and far from all are white. But it’s hard to win the votes of people who think you are at best indifferent to their well-being. Rubio understands that for his party, demography is destiny. In his own speech to the convention, Romney would do well to underscore that message.
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