Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: Hillary, just get to know us

Hillary Clinton speaks to student Travis Lemieux during a campaign stop at New Hampshire Technical Institute on Tuesday.
Hillary Clinton speaks to student Travis Lemieux during a campaign stop at New Hampshire Technical Institute on Tuesday. The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO – This week, Hillary Clinton took her “I’m just like you” tour to New Hampshire. No word yet on whether she capped off her visit to the Granite State with a visit to Chipotle. On her way to Iowa, the Democratic presidential candidate created buzz when she visited the trendy Mexican-style eatery.

Perhaps Clinton was doing research for what will likely be her campaign’s condescending stab at Latino outreach. We’ve learned that she finds it easier to think about the nation’s 54 million Latinos when she’s holding a burrito.

In 2008, before the Nevada primary, Clinton strolled into a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas where – in a feeble attempt to relate to Latino voters – she insisted that all Americans are connected despite the fact that we divide groups “as though one is guacamole and one is chips.”

These stereotypical comments showed that Clinton’s knowledge of Latinos is one taco short of a combination plate. She ought to think about how she can reconnect with Latino voters. While she probably didn’t find many Latinos in Iowa or New Hampshire, she’s likely to have better luck when she visits another early primary state: Nevada.

Latinos take the immigration debate personally. That cuts negatively for Republicans, but Clinton isn’t out of the woods. In 2008, she did well with Latinos – outdoing Barack Obama 2-to-1 with those voters in the Democratic primaries. Much of that had to do with the afterglow of the presidency of Bill Clinton, who got 72 percent of the Latino vote in his re-election in 1996. In her first run for the White House, Hillary was a largely unknown commodity.

Now she has a record to run on with Latinos. And it’s not good. And, to the degree that she is tied to the Obama administration, well, that record is even worse. Her standard approach is either coldhearted or clumsy.

The coldhearted: Last summer, as tens of thousands of child refugees from Central America crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, Clinton declared that they “should be sent back” because “we have to send a clear message: ‘Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.’” Latino Democrats winced. Clinton later reversed course.

The clumsy: A few months later, during a visit to Iowa, Clinton was confronted by undocumented young people who demanded to know if she would, as president, fulfill Obama’s promise to fix the immigration system and whether she would use executive power to curb deportations. She beat a hasty retreat, and the encounter landed on YouTube.

Clinton can’t run from the administration’s record of immigration enforcement, which includes more than 2 million deportations, hundreds of thousands of divided families, and thousands of people – including women and children – locked up without a court date or access to counsel.

So far, in the 2016 campaign, Clinton’s strategy seems to avoid the immigration issue, and focus on schmoozing with “High-spanics” – higher-earning, U.S.-born Latino business leaders who like to talk a good game about immigration reform but really don’t have a stake in the issue.

A November 2014 poll by Latino Decisions found that Latino support for Hillary hinged on whether she commits to preserving Obama’s executive action on immigration – something she has been reluctant to do. The poll found that, if Latinos are told that Clinton would continue the policy, a whopping 85 percent of them would support her. But if they think she would let the policy expire, the figure plummets to 37 percent.

That’s why effective outreach matters so much – and why the mistakes are so costly. Consider the video announcement that kicked off Clinton’s campaign. In one scene, two Latino brothers are opening a restaurant, and they’re speaking Spanish. Yet, about 80 percent of Latinos speak at least some English.

It’s a lesson they teach you in Retail Politics 101, but something that Clinton still needs to learn: When you’re courting a group of voters, it’s considered smart – not to mention respectful – to take the time to get to know them.

Navarrette’s email is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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