Presidential debate: Spanish is not the issue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Sep 8 15:11:34 UTC 2007

Spanish Is Not the Issue
Democrats to Address Hispanic Concerns in Historic Univision Broadcast

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, September 7, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- If your stomach burns at the thought of the debate
between U.S. presidential candidates airing in Spanish, consider this
word of advice: Tranquilo (relax). There is no need to give yourself
an ulcer over Sunday's live Univision broadcast -- English, after all,
is not under threat. In terms of a Spanish-language presidential
forum, this one is quite tame. An English-only rule prohibits
participants from answering in Spanish, even candidates who are fluent
in the language, such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, or
proficient, such as Sen. Christopher Dodd. And don't be too worried
about the second-ever Spanish-language debate scheduled for a week
later with Republican candidates: No one except for Sen. John McCain
has "time in his schedule" to attend.

What is significant is that Sunday's event, to be held at the
University of Miami, will be about issues that interest Hispanics: the
high dropout rate among Latino students; Iraq and the thousands of
Hispanics serving there; family separations caused by immigration
raids; lack of health insurance; and relations with Latin America. In
other words, while the participants' answers will be simultaneously
translated into Spanish, the issues -- not the language -- will be the
event's main draw. Broadcasting the debate in Spanish, as Univision
anchor Maria Elena Salinas told me, "is more symbolic than anything
else." Salinas added that "if they (Hispanics) watch English-only
(media) they are never going to have their issues addressed."

According to a Pew Hispanic Center poll, the majority of Hispanics in
the United States watch both English- and Spanish-language channels to
get their news. In 2004, three-fourths of all adult Hispanics got
their news in English, and two-thirds in Spanish. "Even fluent English
speakers rely on Spanish-language media to get news from Latin America
and about Hispanic communities in the United States," the Pew poll
reported. So far, most candidates have been equating Hispanic concerns
with immigration. And "that's a fallacy," said Harry Pachon, president
of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in California. Every survey of
Latino voters done in the past couple of years, he said, reflects
other priorities such as education, the economy and the war in Iraq.

Sunday's debate may turn out to be Democrats merely offering
platitudes on Latino issues, but at this point with many Hispanics
feeling alienated, platitudes are something. They certainly represent
a better political tactic for drawing Latinos, the fastest growing
segment of U.S. voters, than what the Republicans offer. Because the
use of the Spanish language by Hispanics has become such an issue with
the Republican base, GOP candidates won't be seizing the same
opportunity -- also offered by Univision, the fifth-largest U.S.
television network -- and so will lose an important chance to
demonstrate something more than toughness on immigration.

The Latino vote will be more important than ever in battleground
states such as Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. According to Louis
DeSipio, an expert on Latino voting behavior at the University of
California at Irvine, Republicans will need at least 30 percent of the
Hispanic vote in those states in order to win. That is possible if
Republicans merely retain some of their historic gains from the past
presidential election, when Bush pulled in 40 percent of the Hispanic
vote. The Democrats have been losing ground among Hispanics in
presidential elections since Bill Clinton drew 72 percent in 1996. Al
Gore in 2000 got 62 percent and John Kerry pulled in 53 percent in

Democrats recovered some of that vote in the 2006 midterm elections,
but Republicans have the most to gain if they continue to borrow a
page from the playbook of Bush's former political strategist, Karl
Rove. While U.S.-born Hispanics are heavily Democratic, a segment of
the Hispanic electorate only likely to grow -- foreign-born Hispanics
-- is up for grabs. Bush spent $3.3 million on Spanish-language
television ads for his reelection, $2 million more than Kerry. Bush's
"phenomenal operation in 2004," according to Joe Garcia, director of
the New Democrat Network's Hispanic Strategy Center, was based on a
message that, in so many words, invited immigrants "to be a winner"
with the Republicans. That was a smart political tactic considering,
Garcia said, that "nobody believes more in the American Dream than ...

And yet the ugly turn that the immigration debate has taken in recent
years appears to have flipped the message of welcome to unwelcome.
Through their silence, Republicans seem to be taking full credit for

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash at

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