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By Ignoring Ethnic Minorities, GOP Leaders Undercut Party's Future : Voters: Pete Wilson, in appealing to the Anglo Establishment, is losing the support of suburban Latinos, Asians and African-Americans.

August 16, 1992|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and an international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business and Management

After a quarter-century of ascendancy, the Grand Old Party is showing signs of ideological and demographic senility. Its message tied increasingly to the political economy of the past, the Republican Party no longer presents a beacon for the upwardly mobile ethnic groups who flocked to its banner during the 1980s.

But rather than returning to conservative orthodoxy, the key to a GOP recovery lies in following the post-conservative agenda espoused by innovative figures such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp and Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, both now on the outs with the Bush high command. Oriented toward entrepreneurial economics and emerging ethnic groups, these policies could break the party's current malaise by energizing its younger, more diverse elements.

In contrast to their moderate patina, both Bush and Gov. Pete Wilson and other California Republicans reflect a regressive, narrow politics with roots in the traditional conservatism of the 1940s and 1950s. Culturally monolithic and anti-immigrant, this approach could squander the support not only of upwardly mobile ethnic minorities but also of a whole younger generation of entrepreneurs who first identified themselves as Republicans under Ronald Reagan.

Both Bush and Wilson appear incapable of making the kind of bold moves that would break the Democratic hold on growing minority constituencies critical in such key states as Illinois, New York, Texas and, most especially, California. Bush himself seems constitutionally unable to do anything--such as replacing country-club WASP alter-ego Dan Quayle with Kemp or Gen. Colin L. Powell--that could liberate his party from its current demographic ghetto.

Wilson's profound lack of imagination was most evident when he failed to appoint Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez for his vacated Senate seat--opting instead for the uninteresting but safe John Seymour. In the process, Wilson surrendered a golden opportunity to reshape ethnic politics in the state--a Vasquez vs. Dianne Feinstein race could have cut deeply into traditionally Democratic Latino voters.

Even worse than their customary lack of boldness, Bush and his California operatives may be undermining their appeal to Latinos and Asians in order to pander to traditional right-wing elements epitomized by supporters of Patrick J. Buchanan. Both Wilson aides and Seymour, for example, have pointedly targeted latent racist sentiments among white voters by linking California's looming budget, welfare and economic problems to mostly nonwhite immigrants.

Given the overwhelmingly white and older make-up of the electorate, such an approach could work in the short run, yet only by robbing the GOP of its future. As California, and the nation, becomes increasingly ethnic--only one of four children in America is pure Anglo-Saxon--the GOP's inability to leap the WASP cultural barrier could prove disastrous.

"The testing ground for cultural change would be here in California," observes Matt Fong, a Republican member of the State Board of Equalization and a prospective candidate for statewide office. "The party has to respond to the market forces--the swing voters here are going to be Latino and Asian. The mainstream has to see us as the future."

Fong, whose mother, Secretary of State March Fong Eu, is a longtime Democrat, points out that Latinos and Asians seem poised to join the GOP in large numbers. Since the 1970s, notes Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont-McKenna College, the percentage of Latinos voting Republican doubled to nearly 40% under Reagan and even slightly higher for Wilson in 1990. Together with Asians, also voting increasingly Republican, minorities counted for as much as one-fifth of Wilson's vote.

Heslop sees even greater potential from a congruence between GOP social, economic and political values and those of upwardly mobile minorities. According to recent surveys, more Latinos, Asians and even African-Americans now label themselves politically conservative than espouse the left-liberal views of many of their so-called spokespeople. Radical ethnic politicians such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-L.A.), Bill Clinton's California co-chair, might have condoned the riots, for example, but nearly three-fifths of Southern California's African-Americans, and overwhelming percentages of other minorities, condemned the violence.

Much the same pattern exists among Asians and Latinos, large majorities of whom favor making English California's official language, though this is opposed by the vast majority of their elected, largely Democratic officials. Like African-Americans, a majority of Latinos polled also tend toward tough positions against welfare, while favoring the death penalty and prayer in schools.

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