Navarrette: Latinos Should Form 'Tequila Party'

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Latinos make up the largest minority group in the United States. In a piece in USA Today, columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. writes that it's time for a wake up call: "America's largest minority needs to take a cue from the Tea Party movement," and form their own party.

NEAL CONAN, host:

President Obama delivered two speeches this week on immigration reform. Tuesday, he spoke in El Paso, near the Texas/Mexico border; this morning, at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast here in Washington with at least one eye on the next election, while most of his protected - prospective Republican rivals focus on securing the border.

A year from November, an estimated 12 million Latinos are expected to make their way to the polls. In a piece in USA Today, columnist Ruben Navarrette says that their choices are disgust or disillusionment. It's time for a wakeup call, he says, and that means the creation of a new political force to hold both parties accountable, not the Tea Party but the Tequila Party.

Latinos, are you loyal to either of the established parties, or would you like to see the rise of a Tequila Party? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website as well. That's npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist of The Washington Post Writers Group, a contributor to CNN.com, and a regular guest on NPR's TELL ME MORE. He joins us from his home in Carlsbad, California. Nice to have you with us again.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Great to be with you, Neal, again.

CONAN: And in Arizona, there's already a grassroots movement in there, called among Latino conservatives, called the Tequila Party. You think that needs to be expanded.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know, it's an interesting concept. Here's the genesis of it. Barack Obama has had, with regard to Latinos, a really poor record of service, I'd argue, and particularly with regard to immigration, where it's not just a question of him having broken his promise to Latino groups to make immigration a top priority. But more importantly, he's embraced and perpetuated this horrible policy on deportations, where they've deported nearly a million people since he took office. You really have to go back all the way to Dwight D. Eisenhower to find a president who's deported more people than Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

CONAN: And we're having a difficulty with our connection with Ruben Navarrette there in Carlsbad, California, talking about the problems that Latinos, he argues, should have with President Obama.

President Obama, of course, did, as mentioned, make Latinos a vow in his presidential election campaign, that he would make immigration reform a top priority. It was not among the first things that he put on his reform ballot when - his reform agenda when he became president, when he enjoyed big majorities in both houses of Congress. And, well, he did try to get the DREAM Act passed just in the last lame duck session of Congress, was not able to do that.

But Ruben Navarrette, I think we have you back with us.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

CONAN: All right...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I would say this, Neal. I would say he tried not very hard to get the DREAM Act passed. This was proposed, as you said, in the final days of the Congress, in the lame duck. It failed because five Democratic senators that apparently neither the White House nor Majority Leader Harry Reid could whip back into place managed to vote no on cloture. This wasn't Republicans who killed the DREAM Act. It was Democrats who killed the DREAM Act.

And so Latinos' complaint with Obama has been that on those issues that he cares very deeply about - I'll name two of them, health care reform and education reform, he cares deeply about those - he can get his - get behind those full force. But he hasn't done that done with immigration. He's not really - this is not his thing. This is not his issue. He doesn't really care about it. He doesn't really have an interest it.

And so Latinos tend to view this in a very transparent way. When he comes forward right before an election and says, hey, let's begin this conversation, we know what he's doing, which is setting a trap for the Republicans who are even worse on this issue than most Democrats. So he sets the trap. Republicans like, you know, boneheadedly walked into the trap. And then Obama in reelection can do very well with Latinos. Having not really earned that support, he'll garner it nonetheless.

CONAN: So you argue for a third force. How would a Tequila Party hold Democrats and Republicans accountable?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, I think the idea of where Latinos are now, basically, they're written off by one party, taken for granted by another. And it's a recipe for political impotence or irrelevance. That's where they're at. And so the idea of a Tequila Party is basically to let both parties know that Latinos will pick and choose candidates who have a good record on issues that matter to them, whether they be a Republican or Democrats. They'll be free agents, in effect. And this isn't like a formal party structure, where they would create like a Green Party or a third party. But it's basically telling Democrats that these Latino voters are going to them what the Tea Party did to Republicans, which is basically put the Republicans on notice and put the Republican establishment on notice that they were going to challenge them over the size of government and over spending and those issues.

So I think this is just a real shock(ph) in the system. It's a kind of thing that needs to happen every once in a while. I'm looking at it very - with great interest, obviously. But as I've said before, Barack Obama's support with Latinos is a mile wide and an inch deep. It's just not very strong. And Democrats are a little worried about that.

CONAN: This would be essentially a one-issue movement, that if you, Mr. Democrat, don't vote the way we want on immigration reform, we're going to oppose you in the primary. We're going to have - voting for another Democrat who might be more to our liking.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, they could pick any issue they wanted to. I mean, there are issues typically it's like this, when Latinos are asked their most important issues, immigration typically doesn't even fall into the top three. It's the economy, it's health care, and it's education, of all things.

But there's some interesting poll data that we've seen in the last six months, including one recently, that suggest that when it becomes a hot issue, as it did in Arizona, immigration goes to the top of the list. So if nobody is doing any wrong on immigration, if the water is still, so to speak, then there's no problem with that issue. But as it becomes a hot point, a hot issue, Latinos care about that very much and they carry it at the top of the list, so...

CONAN: I hear what you're saying. But you're saying in much of the rest of the country then top issues for Latinos include education and health care, which Mr. Obama did deliver on.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, on health care, yeah, with the exception that he - as you recall, you remember famously Joe Wilson from South Carolina, you lie? Everybody remembers that, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: What was the nature of the accusation that you lie, was because Obama had just said that this plan will not cover illegal immigrants. And so I'm not saying the Latinos necessarily want illegal immigrants covered, but they saw in that deal the fact that illegal immigrants and to some degree legal immigrants - were the first thrown under the bus.

This is not to say that Latinos only care about immigration, but here's the problem. Republicans who do very badly on immigration, they want us to believe at the end of the day, hey, it's just one issue. You guys agree with us on a lot of social issues, on abortion, on gay marriage - can't we just get beyond this one issue?

Democrats who disappoint Latinos say the same thing, remarkably. They come forward and say, hey, we agree with you on education, health care, and can we just get beyond this one issue? Latinos are saying this. This is not about one issue. It's about the one thing you guys are missing, both parties are missing, it's about respect. If you don't respect us, as evidenced by your treatment of this one issue, we cannot talk to you about these other issues because this issue and how you define your relationship to the immigration issue will help define the relationship between your party and the Latino community. And right now you guys, both of you guys, are doing a lousy job of that.

CONAN: We'll get to calls in just a moment. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. But Ruben Navarrette, do you think health care reform could have passed if it included providing taxpayer money to support the health care needs of illegal immigrants?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It would not have. I very seriously doubt it. But I don't think it matters. I don't think it matters that health care passed in its current form because the minute it passed, it passed, if you recall, without a single Republican vote. It was always the case - the Republicans, when they get into power, are going to try to unravel that, as they're trying now under John Boehner in the House.

So it's not like they passed this perfect bill by throwing the immigrants under the bus. They passed a bill with complete Democratic support unanimity, not a single Republican. It was always going to be controversial. It's no less controversial because the immigrants aren't in there.

So you know, Latinos have a right to sort of feel that you come to us on Cinco de Mayo, you come to us at the border, you have Eva Longoria over to the White House for a reception, right, a national leader, and you come back to us, you know, and offer some chips and salsa and you want us to vote for you. It doesn't always work that way.

Democrats have been doing this for too long. They've gotten a lot of Latino support. I'd argue not justifiably, not having earned it. And so I want the Latino community very much be in play, to take bids from both parties, see we're it goes.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation now. We'll start with Efra(ph), and Efra is with us from Ann Arbor.

EFRA (Caller): Hello. Yes, I do slightly support the idea of a third party in the United States to look for a (technical difficulties) the name they are looking for, they are giving to this new party, is kind of ridiculous and I would never take this seriously, or take anybody who are running for any existing (unintelligible) whatever seriously...

CONAN: We're having a little trouble with your line, Efra. But I think what he was saying, Ruben Navarrette, is that it's going to be difficult to be taken seriously if you call it the Tequila Party.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Yeah. Any more than a Tea Party or any other, you know, any other moniker. But the point that he's talking about - the caller's talking about, I would never vote for somebody who was running on a Tequila Party ticket. There is no ballot. There is no ticket. This is not a formal - this is not a formal party. It's a movement, I think, as I understand it. It's this movement that I've picked up on, that's being started in Arizona, and they want to sort of hold both parties accountable.

So ultimately they're still working within the two-party structure, you see, but they are pulling away. They want to pressure both parties to be more responsive to this community that they feel up to now, as a said, has been written off by one party, taken for granted by another.

CONAN: Yet in a lot of situations, I think you would agree, there might not be a big difference or a lot of choice.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: A lot of issues you see all the time that there aren't very many choices. One of the big topics we've had, obviously, in this country in the last several weeks with the killing of Osama bin Laden, we get back into interrogation and terror policies and the like. And you and I have both noticed, I'm sure, that Barack Obama's anti-terror policies look just like George Bush's. He basically went in and Xeroxed those policies.

A lot of my friends who are civil libertarians, who take those things very seriously, have not been thrilled with that development. And I think that politics is interesting when you follow it that way. Sometimes the two parties do blur together. They become much more similar than they would have us believe.

CONAN: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist. He wrote a piece in this morning's USA Today called "Latinos need a Tequila Party." He's talking to us from his home in California. 800-989-8255. Email to us - email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller in. And this is Emilio, Emilio with us from San Antonio.

EMILIO (Caller): Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

EMILIO: Yes. I - even though I respect your guest's opinion, I strongly disagree with it. Even if it's on the par of the Tea Party movement, this would only split the Hispanic vote in the United States. I'm 59 years old. I've been through segregation in schools. I've been through discrimination in jobs in my lifetime. And so I go back and I always look, and who has done the most for Hispanics in this country. And it's never been the Republican Party. It's sort of got close a little bit with the Bush - under the Bush administration, but then the ultra-right people took it over and ignored his advice.

So far the Democratic Party has only - has been the only one that has ever gotten close, back from - as far back in the 1960s to representing the interests of Hispanic, even though we don't get everything that we want. As for the immigration issue, it's not a hot topic among Hispanics. It's a symbolic topic only. We agree with the - we're just like the mainstream America. Economics, jobs, health care and everything else that goes into being an American is what interests us. The immigration issue is symbolic. It's not a hot topic.

CONAN: Ruben Navarrette?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, it varies. I mean, you talk about a city like San Antonio, where it's 65 percent Latino, which has very deep roots. My mother happens to come from Texas. There are people who live in San Antonio - where I'll be next week, in fact, that city, that great city - who go back five or six or seven generations.

But if you go to Los Angeles, you know, up the road from me, and you sit where I sat last week, and I was in an immigrant church listening to Luis Gutierrez, the congressman from Chicago, speak as part of his national tour, and you talk to people who are first generation or second generation or talking about deportations, those people disagree with your caller. They do think immigration is very important. And I think it's more than symbolic. They think it impacts their life. And so...

EMILIO: I am a third generation - I hate to interrupt. I am a third-generation American. My grandparents and my - my grandparents came from Mexico and they had to cross - they went through the sacrifices that the immigrants are going through even today. That's not the point. The point is that who would want to split the Hispanic vote. That doesn't work.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I can address that point too. Let me address that point. But what I'm saying to you, as someone who used to live in Dallas, Texas, up the highway from you, if you go to Dallas, you see a much more immigrant community than you see in San Antonio. You know(ph), Mexican-Americans live in San Antonio. Mexican immigrants live in Dallas. And for Mexican immigrants who are closer to that, I, like you, am a third generation, okay? I don't have to worry about the knock at the door and people deporting me. But there are people in that church, I assure you, in Los Angeles and elsewhere who do feel that Barack Obama has betrayed them.

They feel that Barack Obama has betrayed them. You hear it on Univision and on Spanish radio. There is a great palpable disgust with the Democratic Party over what they've done and how they've handled...

CONAN: And, Ruben Navarrette, though, I hear what you're saying, which Republican would you threaten to vote for who might have a better policy on deportation and immigration than Barack Obama?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, a couple things. I think there are a couple of Republicans out there in a big universe - this includes people who are not necessarily running for president - who have a pretty good position on immigration. Mike Huckabee is one. He got into a good amount of trouble just a couple of weeks ago talking about in-state tuition for illegal immigrants - a Republican, mind you.

Mitch Daniels, the governor from Indiana, is also another. He took on a measure in his own state to help defeat it, where they were trying to create an Arizona-type law in Indiana, a Republican governor. These are - not every Republican is a Neanderthal on immigration - a lot of them are, and I fight with them all time.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Gabriel, Gabriel with us from San Jose.

GABRIEL (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Neal. I'm calling to agree with Ruben, especially on the fact that when he mentioned that five Democrats, you know, sold out on the DREAM Act as - I'm an undocumented student myself. I was deeply disappointed(ph). Every time I hear President Obama say, you know, we had the votes, but the Republicans are the ones that are in the way, you know, he did not push for those five votes. And you know, students are stepping it up. We're getting ourselves deported. We're protesting because we're saying we're tired of this.

And all we're seeing is that the president is using us to campaign, to get donations from Latinos and say, look, I want to pass the DREAM Act, but the Republicans are in the way. And, you know, we feel that not enough is being done. He has the power to do executive orders to, you know, stop deportations and grant some sort of protection. That's not happening either. So we see a lot of talk, as undocumented immigrants and undocumented students, but we just don't see enough action from either party. Actually, we see a lot of action from the Republican Party, but just the wrong kind.

CONAN: The wrong kind of action.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Good for you. I'm with the caller. He's absolutely right. And he's right about something else. Barack Obama does have the power, the executive power, to stop these deportations, and he doesn't understand - I think he does understand that, but he doesn't have the political will. You know who says he has the power? Two former general counsels of the INS. They ought to know. They used to do this every single day. They wrote a letter that said that he has that power. And I have it on good authority that during that White House meeting with the stakeholders, he was lectured by none other than John Podesta. The former White House chief of staff told him he had that power.

If a former White House chief of staff doesn't know the power of the presidency, nobody does. This is not a question of him not having the power. Barack Obama doesn't have the backbone. He doesn't have the guts. He doesn't have the courage.

GABRIEL: I mean I completely agree. I just want to make one last point...

CONAN: Very quickly, please.

GABRIEL: Yeah. As far as it not being the top issue for Latinos, the thing is what they don't understand is this is a mixed issue. My sister is a U.S. citizen. My parents are permanent residents. I'm, you know, I'm undocumented because I (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Very, very quickly, please.

GABRIEL: ...so it's an important aspect because it affects families.

CONAN: All right. Gabriel, thank you very much. And Ruben Navarrette, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Great, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: And again, you can find a link to his USA Today piece at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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