At debate, Democrats lost in translation

An all-Spanish presidential debate symbolizes the new power of Hispanic voters, but format glitches mar a historic first.

By Alex Koppelman
Published September 10, 2007 6:45PM (UTC)
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By now, little of what the 2008 presidential candidates say at their debates is surprising. So Sunday night's Democratic debate wasn't interesting for what was said but for how it was said -- in Spanish. Sort of.

In a nod to the country's growing Hispanic population, this debate was a historic first; hosted by Spanish-language channel Univision, it was broadcast entirely in Spanish. That posed something of a problem for the candidates participating, for those non-Spanish speakers watching at home and for the reporters (like this one, who still regrets dropping his college Spanish class) trying to cover it. The seven candidates attending -- the eighth, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, did not show -- were asked questions in Spanish; those questions were then translated into the earpiece they wore, and they answered in English. Their answers were simultaneously overdubbed back into Spanish, meaning anyone watching at home hoping to hear the candidates in English was bound to be frustrated, having to settle for just a few audible snippets.


The format wasn't only a problem for viewers; it was roundly condemned by one of the candidates onstage, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is himself part Hispanic and is a fluent Spanish speaker. Though answering in Spanish was expressly prohibited by the rules of the debate, Richardson got cute on a couple of occasions, apparently trying to make his fluency clear to the audience by asking in Spanish after the first question addressed at him whether he could respond in Spanish, then slipping back into the language before being reprimanded by the hosts, Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas. (Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd is also fluent in Spanish; Dodd and Richardson had reportedly agreed to debate in Spanish before the other candidates complained that this would unlevel the playing field.)

Still, format problems or no, debates like this will almost certainly happen again because of the increasing clout of Hispanic voters, which will only grow over the next few years. So far, that clout seems to be shifting toward the Democrats. The Bush administration -- and especially its former resident political guru, Karl Rove -- had been trying to reach out to the Hispanic population, relying on social conservatism to pull Hispanics to the Republican Party. And they'd had some success, pulling 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But that number dipped to 30 percent in 2006 after the nativist wing of the GOP stepped up its anti-immigration rhetoric, and all signs indicate that that number will continue to fall. Perhaps recognizing the backlash that would be sure to come from the base, all the Republican presidential candidates -- except Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose campaign has been seriously damaged by his moderation on immigration -- have thus far declined to participate in a Univision debate that had been planned for them.

The Democratic candidates mostly refrained from slamming the other side of the aisle, but as much of the debate focused on immigration and its attendant issues, like a proposed wall on the border with Mexico -- Dodd, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton were questioned on their support for that wall, but not for a similar wall at the Canadian border -- and whether Spanish should become a second language of the U.S., there were a few opportunities for those in attendance to score points by decrying anti-immigrant attitudes. Clinton, who holds a commanding lead among Hispanic voters in the polls, had the biggest such moment.


"There are in the political world and the broadcasting world today [those] who will take a particular aim at our Latino population," Clinton said. "And I think it's very destructive. It undermines our unity as a country." Her campaign later clarified that she meant exactly whom many must have suspected -- CNN's Lou Dobbs, who has reached a new level of fame by harping on immigration, and conservative radio giant Rush Limbaugh.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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