Posted Wednesday evening for Sept. 6, 2012.
It was Bill Clinton who was the first President to put into words something already afoot: The remaking of America. In the days after he won election in 1992, Clinton said he wanted a Cabinet that reflected America. He proceeded then to assemble a Cabinet that included two HispanicLatinos, San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Denver Mayor Federico Peña as Secretary of Transportation.
Clinton – the most capable and aware President since Lyndon Johnson – understood what few Americans did, that the country had begun a historic demographic shift already changing the country. Sometime in 1972 or therabouts, twenty years before Clinton organized a more demographically correct Cabinet, the population replacement rate of the “white” population had already dipped below the necessary 2.1 births per woman and it has fallen each year since to probably 1.7 today. Such a decline in demographic terms creates a void and triggers an extremely powerful force for change, with the potential to cause countries to disappear — a very high price for a nation to pay. But stepping into that breach a growing HispanicLatino population already was leading the formation of a new demography critical for the nation’s survival.
Coming full circle 20 years after he was first elected, Clinton addressed a Democratic national convention last night that reflected the new America that its new demography has created. Benita Veliz, the undocumented student who addressed the convention, represents a vital part of the new demography America needs and requires. Veliz introduced another immigrant from an earlier generation of HispanicLatinos, Cristina Saralegui, a Cuban American long a fixture on Spanish-language television at Univision and now Telemundo. Saralegui debunks the notion that all Cubans are Republicans. Saralegui delivered a full-throated personal endorsement of Obama that spoke about the future of the America that Clinton understood was changing long before most decision-makers.
President Obama walking on stage at the end of Clinton’s speech nominating him for a second term is the first expression of the political will of the new population composition of the country – the same President Obama who appointed the first HispanicLatina to the Supreme Court. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he understood that his party would lose a large part of the country, most notably the South, which today is leading the charge against the new demography by stifling its right to vote. Yet the former southern governor of Arkansas represents the part of the new demography that is just as critical as HispanicLatinos to the nation: The aware part of the American “white” population that knows that for America to succeed it needs to understand and invest in its new population.
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro’s in his stirring keynote address repeatedly asserted that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney “does not get it” – as he surely should have understood it years ago. Romney, after all, is roughly the same age as Clinton and banks on the idea that Americans will appreciate that he understands markets. Of all the markets he should understand is the nation’s new demography. Romney wants to be elected to an office whose occupant did get it two decades ago and he wants to be elected to an office now held by a member of the market whose forming he missed. The energy that swept through the convention hall last night comes from a new people that showered its affection on Clinton and Obama with unabating enthusiasm.
And why not? Clinton roused the convention – and the country – with a devastating dismantling of the Republican vision for our century that seems unaware of and does not include its new demographic character.
In 1992 when Clinton was assembling a new Cabinet that looked like America, Romney was heading up Bain Capital taking in a lot of money reforming and reorganizing companies at a time when the country was reforming and reorganizing itself. Romney understood one but not the other, and he is going to have to pay a very high price indeed.
Blessedly, the nation will not.
Jesse Treviño is the former editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman and writes at HispanicLatino.com.
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