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Week In News: Courting The Latino Vote

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Your speaker from yesterday has a different view. In his speech, he said that when he makes a promise to you, he'll keep it. Well, he has promised to veto the Dream Act. And we should take him at his word.



That's President Obama speaking at a convention for Latino officials on Friday making the case that his opponent, Mitt Romney, would take a hard line on immigration. It's an issue that could shape this year's election. And for more on how, I'm joined by James Fallows of The Atlantic. He's with us most Saturdays. Jim, welcome to you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you very much, Guy.

RAZ: Polls now show that the president's support among Latinos is surging. So how much of a political gamble really has it been for him to basically push for a more liberal immigration policy with respect to illegal or undocumented immigrants?

FALLOWS: There are some downsides for the president. He was criticized for doing this by executive action, although the Dream Act had been stalled in the Senate by a filibuster. And his labor constituency has traditionally not been in favor of liberalizing immigration, but...

RAZ: Unions, yeah...

FALLOWS: Yes. But certainly, the real predicament here is for the Republicans and for Governor Romney, as shown by his response, which has been essentially to say, I don't like this, but I'll do something similar.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. I'm curious about the GOP and immigration, Jim, because for a long time and certainly under President Reagan, many, many immigrants were attracted to his message. One could argue that the Republican Party was the party of immigration.

FALLOWS: Certainly. And there was a wonderful convergence, especially during the Cold War years in the Reagan era, between the fleeing from communism identity of a lot of the people who were coming in - the Vietnamese, eastern Europeans, Cubans - and the Republican emphasis on self-help, hard work, et cetera, et cetera.

But since that time, as more and more immigration has become Latino, there's been a tension within the Republican Party between its sort of nativist impulse and that old message. And you've seen the effect, especially in California, where the Latino vote has been very, very solidly Democratic for 20 years now, and that's made California the Democratic bulwark.

RAZ: What are the long-term consequences, at least politically, you know, for at least being perceived as the party less sympathetic towards immigrants?

FALLOWS: It's worth recognizing first that this is an eternal issue in American politics. Almost any time in our history, immigration has both been economically creative and politically disruptive. And there are people who have resisted it. And in the long run, the party that has opposed this immigrant flow, which inevitably keeps coming, has suffered consequences.

We saw a century ago that the Irish and Italian and Polish immigrant blocs in big cities were reliably Democratic. And now California, I think, is a cautionary bellwether to the Republicans as a whole of what happens if they are positioned as the anti-immigrant party.

RAZ: At a certain point, the Republican Party is going to have to rely on a broader base of supporters, not just primarily white voters. They're going to have to rely on Latino voters and South Asians and East Asians and others. I mean, will the party have to basically modify its general message when it comes to immigration?

FALLOWS: Certainly. No less an authority than former President George W. Bush and the strategist Karl Rove made exactly this case in the late 1990s. And they used his Texas example, which in contrast to California, was appealing very strongly to Latinos on cultural grounds and on hard work grounds and all the rest. And so they thought that could be the future of the Republican Party to have a Latino base. And that's, I think, something they're going to have to find some way to recreate.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. And you can find his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. And check out his new book. It's called "China Airborne." Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.