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Italians for Bush

Why the GOP shouldn't play the ethnic card in promoting Judge Alito.

3:45 PM, Nov 3, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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THAT WAS FAST. The ink on Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court was barely dry before the chattering classes fell into feverish debate over how it would influence Italian-American voting patterns. Their ensuing ruminations have confirmed at least three things: (1) Like Paris Hilton and Reality TV, identity politics is one of those baleful cultural phenomena that won't go away; (2) the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) deserves three hearty cheers for eschewing the ethnic card and demanding that Alito "be considered only on his extraordinary merits," not on his "Italian heritage"; (3) Senate Democrats know Alito will be really, really tough to defeat.

Oh yes, and one other confirmation: When it suits their interests, some Republicans can be just as indulgent of ethnicity-baiting as liberals. The angle must be tempting: Who wouldn't want to hoist Democrats on their own petard by imputing cultural insensitivity to those who attack Alito's paper trail. This is an old liberal standby for defending those who belong to a Designated Victim Group. But it poisons political discourse and devalues minority achievement. Pity if Republicans join the fray just because, for a change, the winds of identity politics seem to be blowing their way.

That's the moral case against trumpeting Alito's "Italianness." But for the GOP, there's also a pragmatic argument against it--it could backfire. As the NIAF statement suggests, Italian Americans might interpret fulsome prattling about the nominee's bloodline as a subtle attempt "to marginalize [his] outstanding record." And Italians are an ethnic constituency Republicans can little afford to alienate.

One of the most seismic electoral shifts of the past three decades has been the steady migration of white ethnic Catholics into the national GOP fold. Italians offer an instructive example. When President Reagan tapped Antonin Scalia for the Supreme Court in 1986, Republicans could barely utter a single sentence about the nominee without blurting out that, oh by the way, he would be the Court's first Italian-American justice. Ditto then-New York governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, who briefly shelved partisanship to throw his weight behind a fellow Italian.

In the mid 1980s, Italians were still caught between their historic ties to the Democrats and their gradual movement into the Republican camp. (Their slow exodus from the Democratic party mirrors, in some ways, that of Irish Americans.) It doesn't diminish Scalia's gold-plated career and brilliant legal mind--or his worthiness for the Court--to acknowledge that his '86 appointment was partly a function of savvy identity politics. Republicans were eager to woo fence-sitting Italian voters, as well as Catholic voters generally. So having Reagan put an Italian-American Catholic on the Court not only made history; it also made for good party building.

It's impossible to say, of course, how much Scalia's ascendancy helped the GOP among Italians. But by July 1988, an Atlantic Monthly article on swing voters noted that, at least in New York, "Italian voters in particular have become a new and important Republican constituency. They tend to dominate the party in the New York [City] suburbs." The author, Bill Schneider, wondered if in fact "Italian voters are now a core Republican constituency"--and had his hypothesis validated by John Marino, the former executive director of the New York State Democrats. "We've got to watch ourselves," Marino said of his party. "We've lost the Irish and Italian ethnic votes."

The drip-drip trickle of Italian Americans into the GOP pool has accelerated during the Bush era. As Michael Barone has written, George W. Bush boosted his share of the Italian vote appreciably between 2000 and 2004. "Where did Bush gain most (6 percent or more)?" Barone asks. "In [congressional] districts that can be characterized by the following labels: Italians, Jacksonians, Latinos, and Asians." He dubs those in the category of "Italians and other ethnics" as "Rudy Giuliani districts." They include seven districts in New York, six in New Jersey, three in Connecticut, and one apiece in Rhode Island, Florida, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

Barone points specifically to the New York City borough of Staten Island, which comprises nearly all of New York's 13th District. "Ethnically," he notes in the Almanac of American Politics, "Staten Island is the most heavily Italian part of the United States; the 13th District has the highest percentage of residents of Italian ancestry in the nation." In the 2000 presidential election, the 13th District went for Al Gore over George W. Bush by 8 points--52 percent to 44 percent. But in 2004, it voted for Bush over John Kerry by 10 points--55 percent to 45 percent. According to Barone, the '04 Staten Island landslide marked "one of the biggest increases in Bush percentage in the country."