By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 18, 2008 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- In a candid moment during his speech this week at the National Council of La Raza's annual convention, John McCain acknowledged he was addressing a largely skeptical audience. "I know many of you are Democrats, and many of you would usually vote for the presidential candidate of that party," he said. "I know I must work hard to win your votes."
He was right on all counts.
For months now, polls have shown that Latinos are favoring Barack Obama over McCain by margins of 2-1 or better. Latinos, who largely favored Hillary Clinton during the primaries, have apparently had little difficulty switching loyalties now that Obama has sealed the nomination.
McCain is saddled with his association with President Bush, and while that might have been a plus in the past -- Bush's conservative social agenda attracted Latinos at historic levels in 2004 -- the national economy, and particularly the state of jobs and housing, will make it hard for McCain to win those Latino votes.
Unemployment, for example, is disproportionately affecting Latinos. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic unemployment rose to 6.5 percent in the first quarter of 2008, well above the 4.7 percent rate for all non-Hispanics.
Housing advocates say the subprime mortgage crisis is also likely to affect Latinos more than any other group other than African-Americans. In 2006, more than 45 percent of all home loans to Hispanic families were subprime loans, the type that has led to mass foreclosures. The five states most affected by foreclosures -- Nevada, California, Arizona, Florida and Colorado -- have high percentages of Latinos in their populations.
In this economic climate, McCain needs to throw some punches. But instead his proposals, as reflected in his speech at La Raza's conference -- his third pitch in three weeks to the coveted Latino vote -- are boilerplate conservative. Regardless of whether they make for sound economic policy, McCain's message won't help him capture the imagination of Hispanics.
He pledged to make it "easier for ... (small businesses) to grow and create more jobs" by keeping taxes low, part of his overall philosophy that raising taxes during an economic downturn is a "terrible mistake." The problem, said Eric Rodriguez, deputy vice president for public policy at La Raza, is that the majority of Latinos haven't earned enough each year to qualify for the Bush tax breaks.
If anything, those tax cuts have too often been blamed for the lack of funding for programs that could have benefited Latinos directly, said Rodriguez. He welcomed McCain's proposal to help small business owners, but expressed "real concerns about relying too much on taxes just given their track record."
To the extent that McCain is associated with the Bush administration, he stands to suffer from the widespread perception that the White House arrived late at understanding the magnitude of the housing problem. Nor does he benefit from the view, as described by Rodriguez, that in response to the crisis, the "government has been bailing out banks and investors while doing nothing for homeowners."
In contrast, Obama's plan to increase taxes among those making more than $250,000 a year is seen as a welcome change for the large majority of Latinos who make less. Also welcome are his initiatives to invest on infrastructure and green technology that could create new jobs in construction and manufacturing.
In many respects, this year's election may be a case in which Obama's economic and other domestic proposals, even if they involved sending the first kangaroo to the moon, would still win broad support among Latinos. And in that context, Obama could continue to ignore his vulnerabilities, particularly when it comes to trade and engagement with Latin America.
He did not mention either issue in his own speech to La Raza's conference, the day before McCain's. And Obama, who is about to embark on a much-hyped photo-op tour of Europe and the Middle East, has never traveled to Latin America and apparently has no plans to do so during the campaign. Also, despite admitting recently that his previous anti-trade rhetoric had been "overheated," he has too often linked trade to problems rather than solutions to the economic downturn.
But as Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Frankel told me, the one engine that has kept the U.S. economy going is trade. It is the same engine that has helped incomes grow in Mexico, Brazil and China, countries becoming major markets for U.S. goods. Two more reasons for Obama to be grateful.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.