Years ago as a young boy in the small town of West Texas where I grew up, I would daydream along the railroad tracks in the shallow valley below our home. I would wait for the high, mighty trains that I imagined came roaring from Los Angeles from the west or Atlanta from the east. The trains would slow down as they sped by an old salt lake but even so would displace enough air to create a powerful force that on occasion sent my thin, reedy body reeling and crashing into the brown dirt. While other boys were sniffing glue, I was getting off on sudden blasts of air from caravans of steel that the day before might have sat idling near the Pacific or come from the other side of the country where Sherman ran roughshod over the Confederacy.
One day, one of the trains slowed to a pace slower than usual. A clump of rail yard workers not far from me waited. One of the crew stood by a thick iron stick that he pushed away from his body. As he did, the tracks moved and separated in part. I watched with fascination. A new set of tracks appeared suddenly and diverted the massive train to another set of tracks. That decades-old image came to mind as I sat with my old college roommate watching the returns of the election of 2012 that some observers have characterized as a status-quo election. It was anything but. In fact, it was a shattering election – far more important than the pedantic conclusion that Democrats retained control of the White House and the Senate and that Republicans maintained their majority in the House.
Posted on evening of Sept. 20 for publication Sept. 21.
Campaign strategists on both sides of the Democratic-Republican divide fret daily about how big the HispanicLatino vote might be and how high a margin among HispanicLatinos President Barack Obama will rack up in November. Most polls have him attracting 65 percent of the HispanicLatino vote and some surveys have him bumping 70 percent. Anything more than 70 percent will trigger an electoral vote rout.
Obama did little to hurt himself when he confronted Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas last night on Univision the day after Mitt Romney faced the same journalistic duo. Obama went to Miami knowing he had to face tough questions from Ramos who is unyielding in his criticism of the administration’s failure to bring about immigration reform – a public commitment made on national television by the Democratic nominee in 2008. And, the same network reminds us often, Obama’s administration has deported more immigrants than any other in history. Indeed, Salinas followed up with a question that made the very point.
The forum that Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas of Univision hosted last night in Miami featuring Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was one of those non-events that should have been more than what it became. The proposition that Romney had something meaningful to say to a national HispanicLatino population – that the polls suggest has made up its mind in this election, almost to the point of steadfastness – never reached professional seriousness. Anyone viewing the event might have thought that Romney has hidden but burning support in HispanicLatino precincts across an entire nation when in fact it seemed the audience for last night’s peculiar program came from one precinct off old Southwest 8th Street in Miami. And Miami does not the national HispanicLatino population make — by a long shot.
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.
When does community end? If the country feels as if it is fraying, that a big scramble is on during which everyone grabs for their own, it is because the sense of unity that fragilely sews together a nation that depends on comity started coming undone first. It is not the economy, stupid. The furies of our times are about something else.
The sad and disturbing fact is that many Americans are having trouble handling the new demography that has come down on them pretty fast. The components of change embedded in the population decades ago by individuals choosing not to have more than two children put the country on a fast track that along with immigration altered the country’s demography. Now the consequences of those decisions are being reflected in an election that people want to treat as a discussion about the direction of the economy and about its closely-related cousin, Medicare. But the election is about so much more. It is about whether the nation at some point understands the dangerous point at which we have arrived, when community is not about everyone. The Republican line about saving America is rhetorical gauze for something more disturbing.
I am one of those HispanicLatinos who wants to like Marco Rubio. Anyone who knows and understands how fast HispanicLatinos need to rise within high leadership circles to affect the challenges the country faces should cut a wide swath around individuals like Rubio, especially those gifted with the kind of presence, charm and personality that some people equate to that possessed by John F. Kennedy. In today’s media-driven world, Rubio possesses all the traits that lead to success.
I do not know what President Obama is going to say today in Orlando at the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. I did hear Mitt Romney yesterday and to say that it fell short of what he needed to do is an understatement. By my timing, Romney spoke for 16 minutes. In the 20 or so GOP debates during the presidential primary campaign, I estimate that Romney spent at least five minutes, on average, bashing immigrants and, by extension, HispanicLatinos who, while not making immigration their number one priority, do not cotton to that kind of language. Romney’s antagonistic language in the last few months amounted to perhaps as many as 100 televised minutes – not to mention the endless repetition of his remarks as sounds bites across every medium in the country. It isn’t as if HispanicLatinos do not know where Romney stands on things HispanicLatino. And so 16 minutes hardly would suffice.
But Romney amazed me: The national Spanish-language networks, both television and radio, waited for him with genuine interest. Univision and Telemundo were there, but also were the mainstream media, from which most HispanicLatinos get their news. CNN and MSNBC carried the address live. This was not a “gotcha” moment. He had control of the entire environment. It was a golden moment for Romney but, like the alleged vetting of Marco Rubio for vice president, Romney flubbed his opportunity. Perhaps he expects Jeb Bush or Rubio to do what he could not do for himself. Yet it does not work that way. Folks do not vote for surrogates. He could have achieved 100 percent coverage of the HispanicLatino community to make up for 100 minutes of discord.
If the Romney campaign hoped for some phrase, some language, some image, some narrative to register and make it across the many media gathered there that could begin to turn around the presidential race, the speech it prepared for its candidate was wholly and surprisingly absent of anything substantive. Who gets this kind of tee-up and whiffs it?
Reports earlier yesterday that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was not being vetted as a serious vice presidential running mate by the Mitt Romney campaign – contradicted later by the candidate himself – imparts valuable political data. Perhaps a goldmine.
The first nugget suggests ongoing debate within the campaign about the strategy for the general election itself. Thus the hash that became the latest Rubio boomlet was no boomlet at all. More probably it was a botched attempt to influence internal campaign thinking.
Markets is a word easily thrown about, especially in the changing landscape of television. One definition of market is the old trying to catch up to the new – and to the news, perhaps. In the roiled television industry, ‘market’ could also be defined as networks discovering they stood in the way of history. Certainly, television has scrambled to catch up with the social media, and it has begun finally to move away from an old demography on which it has been stuck that each day applies less and less to the only definition of markets that ultimately matters – a way to make money.
There are many tough executive-level jobs in corporate America today. The nation’s economy is being buffeted on all sides by foreign competition, skilled workers are at a premium and the nation’s infrastructure each day falls behind the rest of the world — among other issues. Few of those jobs are more challenging than leading a television network today (or a film production or advertising company for that matter).
Whether heading up an English-language or a Spanish-language operation – all are caught in some way by changing demographics; the evident and growing power of social media and new platforms; and an audience comprised of submarkets and subgroups hard to unify into a national market. It is nothing short of mayhem – and confused mayhem at that – exacerbated by business models that probably need to be revamped or scratched. Not surprisingly, rumors abound about the future of the current Spanish-language networks, the advent of news ones and the creation of new hybrids for English-dominant HispanicLatinos. ABC and Univision this week affirmed their intention to bring to life next year a new cable news channel that appeals to English-dominant HispanicLatinos.