Pumping his fists in the springtime sun, Sen. Ted Kennedy looked like he was having fun. Before him tens of thousands of mostly Hispanic protesters cheered and waved American flags as they listened to his condemnation of draconian House Republican legislation that would forcibly expel millions of illegal immigrants from America.
"More than four decades ago, near this place, Martin Luther King called on the nation to let freedom ring," the 74-year-old Kennedy cried out, his voice cracking from the strain. "It is time for Americans to lift their voices now, in pride for our immigrant past and in pride for our immigrant future."
It was a Democratic media consultant's dream. The colors were crisp, the well-behaved crowd was effusive, and the chants were patriotic ("U.S.A., U.S.A."). Members of the nation's fastest growing ethnic voting bloc had gathered to sing the praises of a political party that they had been deserting for a decade. In 2004, George W. Bush pulled off a little-noticed coup among Hispanics, by winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls, about twice as much as GOP nominee Bob Dole earned in 1996.
Ever since Bush's 2004 breakthrough, Democratic campaign consultants have been panicked over projections that show that the Hispanic vote will become increasingly decisive in swing states. If Republicans are able to increase their showing by 2 or 3 percentage points nationally, said Joe Garcia, a Democratic consultant at the Hispanic Strategy Center, "the Democrats will not take the White House again in my lifetime." But the coast-to-coast wave of massive street rallies in the last few days has been raising the hopes of the liberal-minded members of the political prognosticating class like Garcia. "This is just like Tammany Hall signing up the Irish as they got off the boat," he said. "The guy who sows this issue well is going to reap a good harvest."
The national protests represent a major setback for the Bush wing of the Republican Party, which has courted immigrant voters with a welcome message of economic opportunity in exchange for hard work. This carefully calibrated Republican appeal may now fall on deaf ears, especially among young voters whose political allegiance is still unformed. "There are voters-in-waiting who may be getting their political consciousness because of this," said Gabriel Escobar, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
Republican strategists like Karl Rove and party chairman Ken Mehlman have been fighting a losing battle within the Republican Party, hoping to isolate outspoken GOP opponents of Hispanic immigration, like Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who talks about running for president in 2008 on a protest platform. Arguing on behalf of both the American melting pot and employers who pay migrants low wages, Mehlman told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week, "America always has and always will be changed by the immigrants who come to our shores -- changed for the better."
But such inclusive rhetoric has been drowned out by the statements of more militant House Republicans, who depict illegal immigrants as a threat to American values. Tancredo recently said that granting citizenship to workers who are here illegally would be "suicidal in terms of national security." Dana Rohrabacher, a fire-breathing California Republican congressman, recently announced that protesters who wave Mexican flags in America show that their primary loyalty lies south of the Rio Grande. At a recent seal-the-border rally in Washington, Rohrabacher declared, "This is about taking care of our own family before we take care of a foreign family."
Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the right-of-center Manhattan Institute who favors giving illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, said that Republicans should be worried about the political effect of inflammatory rhetoric targeting Hispanics. "It takes decades to build a reputation and you lose it in a day," she said. "If this doesn't scare some Republicans to ask, 'What side of history am I on,' then they are not paying attention."
In the Senate, Republicans led by Arizona Sen. John McCain and Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have taken the lead in seeking a compromise that would allow most illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. But that bipartisan effort fell apart late last week. Specter has said that he hopes to raise the issue again later this month when the Senate returns from its spring break, though other leading Senate Republicans say it will be an uphill battle.
At the Washington rally on Monday, the issue took on starkly partisan terms, as Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia and Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland, took turns at the podium without a Republican in sight. That left the door open for Kennedy to bash his right-wing opponents before a receptive crowd.
"Some in Congress want to turn America away from its true spirit," Kennedy boomed. "They believe immigrants are criminals, and they are wrong." The crowd applauded twice for each of Kennedy's lines -- once after he spoke them in English, and then again, a moment later, after the words reverberated across the Mall in Spanish translation.
"They say you should report to deport," he said. "I say report and become American citizens." And then, presumably, vote Democratic.