It was only a few months ago, when the news cycle was abuzz with rumors of a possible Latino vice-presidential pick. Xavier Becerra, Julian Castro, Tom Perez, all were floated as possible names on Hillary Clinton’s short list. Becerra, the most senior ranking Latino Democrat in the house, was a qualified choice. Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the rising-star of the Democratic Party brought with him youth, good looks, and the right political pedigree (by way of Stanford and Harvard). Perez, Secretary of Labor, brought with him political gravitas and liberal credibility, given his background in labor and civil rights issues.
All were strong choices and Latino advocacy groups were excited about the possibility for new political and social visibility. In an election which ultimately saw a candidate who ran on an anti-Mexican platform, a Latino could have significant potential to disrupt the entire Trumpian narrative.
Instead, Clinton picked Tim Kaine. It was supposed to be okay because Kaine would successfully reenergize the Latino vote. A sprinkling of Spanish, a mention of his time in Costa Rica, a few words on his Catholicism, and Latinos would just eat him up with their cucharras. Kaine was supposed recharge Clinton’s Latino outreach.
Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, showed Kaine’s failure to live up to that initial promise.
Kaine didn’t reach out to Latino voters, as much as remind Latinos about Trump’s comments. Over and over, Kaine listed a year’s worth of Trump’s insults about Latinos: “rapists and criminals,” “Mexican judges,” “Miss Housekeeping,” and his plans for deportations and building a wall. His pushing, eventually forced Mike Pence into the cringe-worthy phrase “there you go whipping out that Mexican thing again.”
The thing is, Latinos don’t need reminding; they haven’t forgotten. It wasn’t helpful. Latinos haven’t forgotten about Trump’s statements. They haven’t forgotten about Trump’s attacks on them. They haven’t forgotten about his promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay. Yes, Pence’s comment, made explicit that Latinos are at worst criminal and at best nuisances to the Trump/Pence ticket, but Latinos already knew that. Latinos already knew that this election was more than just about talking points and insults. This election was about their position in American society. Unfortunately, Kaine’s presence on the stage didn’t upset the Trumpian narrative or the centrality of whiteness in American politics.
Kaine fulfilled his responsibility as a vice-presidential candidate of doing no harm to the Democratic ticket. But he hasn’t lived up to his promise for Latinos. While he hasn’t hispandered or committed any of the missteps of Clinton during the primary season (notably he’s not telling anyone he’s like their abuela or tio), he most certainly hasn’t impassioned Latino voters.
Kaine’s border-crossing and bilingualism are products of his privilege. His missionary trip to Costa Rica is admirable, but it is not remotely close to the struggles of Central American migrants trying to come to the U.S. His bilingualism is laudable, but Anglo bilingualism hardly faces the same challenges as Latino bilingualism. His language skills are seen as an asset, the product of superior education and opportunities. Latinos’ use of Spanish is attacked and derided, treated as a national threat and an educational deficit. No party, Democratic or Republican, has tried to pass laws to keep Kaine from crossing borders or learning languages. While his past may form the foundation for a moving college entrance essay, it is a much shakier foundation for community outreach.
Imagine Becerra, Castro, or Perez on that stage. Imagine how all of Trump’s insults over the course of the year would seem if they had been on the stage. Imagine if Pence had muttered “there you go whipping out that Mexican thing again” to one of them. It wouldn’t have just been a trending hashtag. It wouldn’t have been just a funny internet meme. It could have destroyed the Trump/Pence campaign and struck a blow to Trumpism along the way, because, beyond the optics, their presence would have grown the political imagination of the nation.
Photo via Wiki Commons