The Magazine

Go for the Bitter Bloc

Hillary shows McCain the path to victory over Obama.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By REIHAN SALAM
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For example, 60 percent of Asian Americans are foreign born. Because Asian Americans tend to live in married households and have relatively high incomes, this ought to be a strong Republican constituency. That was once the case, when memories of the Cold War motivated Korean American and Vietnamese American voters to back hawkish Republicans, and it could happen again as culturally conservative foreign-born Asian Americans acquire citizenship and younger churchgoing Asian Americans reach voting age. Asian-American voters have nonetheless been trending Democratic, in no small part because they are clustered in heavily Democratic metropolitan areas. And assimilation is fast turning Asian Americans into a less rather than a more distinctive constituency from whites with similar class and educational backgrounds. You might say Asian Americans are assimilating into the Democratic-leaning tendencies of their college-educated white neighbors.

This leaves Latino voters. Writer and hip-hop historian Jeff Chang has suggested that Latino voters in California backed Clinton because they place a great deal of weight on community leaders who were courted aggressively by the Clinton machine. John McCain can't match Clinton's success in this regard, as the Latino political establishment is, with the exception of Florida's Cuban Americans, very nearly monolithically Democratic.

A number of analysts have attributed strong Latino support for Hillary Clinton to a deep-seated antagonism towards black Americans, an antagonism some Obama partisans have gone so far as to suggest has been stoked by the Clintons. There is no doubt some truth to this notion. Latinos and native-born blacks have clashed in urban politics, particularly in California where Latino political power has arguably surpassed that of black voters. But what if Latino voters are simply mirroring the preferences of similarly situated Anglo voters? Given that Latino voters by definition represent the most assimilated slice of the Latino population, it makes sense that, say, non-college-educated Latinos would parallel non-college-educated whites in preferring Clinton to Obama. And if that's true, it suggests that the demographic decline of the white working class is an illusion--it will be remade as an Anglo-Latino white working class, just as conceptions of whiteness grew to include previous waves of immigrants. Latino distinctiveness will likely endure on certain issues, particularly on immigration. Yet that distinctiveness will fade.

In a sense, Hillary Clinton's coalition of white working class and Latino voters represents a better path for the Democratic party's future than Barack Obama's coalition of social liberals and black voters, which, as John Judis has noted, resembles nothing so much as George McGovern's losing coalition of 1972. Granted, there are far more college-educated liberals now than there were a generation ago. But here's the thing--the McGovern coalition included all minorities, as though minority status were defining and rigid. To the extent Latino voters can be pried loose from neo-McGovernism, the whole enterprise collapses.

But it is by no means obvious that McCain can pry Latino voters lose, particularly in light of the tarnished state of the Republican brand. McCain broke with conservative Republicans to embrace a comprehensive immigration reform, but he's been forced to soft-pedal the issue. Moreover, he will never win Latino voters in an immigration liberalization bidding war with Democrats. Instead of focusing on immigration as such, McCain needs to appeal to Latinos as members of a broad, pan-ethnic group of working class strivers. In doing so, he could remove places like Nevada, Florida, and New Mexico from the swing state column and improve his standing in increasingly blue-trending Colorado. McCain's balanced and measured plan to tackle the mortgage crisis, his call for doubling the tax exemption for dependents, and his proposal for delivering more affordable health care all represent a promising start. But he needs to weave together these and other proposals into a compelling narrative that goes beyond rewarding our guys and punishing yours.

It's a tall order. Still, if McCain manages to pull off a victory, Republicans will owe a debt to the path blazed by the Hillary Clinton campaign in Pennsylvania--not that they would ever thank such an unlikely benefactor, and not that she would ever want to be thanked.

Reihan Salam is an editor at the Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation. With Ross Douthat, he is the author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday), due out in June.