Four strikes for Romney as he woos Latino vote

Thu, May 24, 2012, 01:00

IT’S THE sort of efficiency they taught Mitt Romney at Harvard Business School. The Republican presidential candidate hit at least four birds with one stone yesterday in his address to the Latino Coalition’s business summit.

In less than an hour, Mr Romney managed to strike back at President Barack Obama’s 10-day-old crusade against his corporate record, stroke the business community, pander to Hispanics and deliver another instalment in his plodding series of theme-driven campaign speeches, this one on education.

The themes overlapped, as when Mr Romney slammed Mr Obama while expressing solidarity with persecuted businessmen: “In recent days, we’ve heard a lot about business from the president and if you’re feeling like you deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act, I can’t blame you,” he said.

“President Obama has decided to attack success.

“Make no mistake, when I am president, you won’t wake up every day and wonder if the president is on your side . . . Dividing people and pitting one side against another produces nothing but failure and mediocrity.”

The audience laughed at Mr Romney’s joke: “Some of my liberal friends love the economy; they just don’t like business . . . Sometimes I think the guys in Washington don’t like you very much. I love you.”

Mr Romney told a morality tale in which business, parents and state governments were heroes, while unions, the federal government, Mr Obama and Democrats were villains.

Inside the opulent dining room at US Chamber of Commerce headquarters, just across Lafayette Park from the White House that Mr Romney so wants to inhabit, the audience groaned when he quoted “a long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers” who allegedly said: “When children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

Teachers’ unions “wield outsized influence in elections”, Mr Romney said. Some teachers “are forced to pay almost $1,000 in union dues” he added in a scandalised tone. The two leading teachers’ unions take in $600 million each year.

“And 90 per cent of those funds went to Democrats.”

Mr Romney pretended to give Mr Obama the benefit of the doubt. He “must be troubled by the lack of progress,” Mr Romney said. But teachers’ unions were some of Mr Obama’s biggest donors.

“So President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses – and unwilling to stand up for kids . . . We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.”

Mr Romney railed against “federal micromanagement” – seen in the “82 programmes in 10 agencies that spend $4 billion on teacher quality”.

He promised to “consolidate these programmes, and block grant them to states.”

The US pioneered public education, he noted.

Now “our education system is failing . . . Among developed countries, the US comes in 14th of 34 in reading, 17th of 34 in science, and an abysmal 25th out of 34 in math.”

The candidate was interrupted more than a dozen times by applause, including when he called education “the civil rights issue of our era”.

But there were no concrete proposals in the 2,872 word speech. The “bold policy changes” that Mr Romney promised consisted of allowing parents of low-income and special needs students to choose which school their children attended, by allowing federal funds to “travel with” the student.

But won’t students flock to the best schools?

“Obviously there are capacity restrictions that must be respected,” said Mr Romney’s domestic policy director Oren Cass, in a pre-speech briefing.

Enrolment in US universities can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

“We must stop fuelling skyrocketing tuition prices that put higher education out of reach for some and leave others with crushing debt,” Mr Romney said.

Yet he refuses to control fees, or to increase the amount of financial aid for students. In March, he suggested that students who couldn’t afford university join the military or “shop around”.

Some 50 million Hispanics live in the US, one in six residents. Experts estimate Mr Romney would have to gain 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote to defeat Mr Obama. But his criticism of Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro, his call to “focus on the extraordinary opportunities in Latin America, because of our shared culture and values” may not be sufficient to win their allegiance.

Susana Martinez, the Republican governor of New Mexico and a possible vice-presidential running mate, warned last week that “Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign.” At the end of his speech yesterday, Mr Romney said: “Here in America, every child deserves a chance. It shouldn’t be reserved for the fortunate few.”

A young Hispanic woman shouted from the audience: “Then why do you propose ‘self-deportation’?” The audience cheered Mr Romney, while secret service men dragged her out.

I found Lucy, age 20, an undocumented immigrant from Peru, weeping outside. She said Mr Romney’s people had insulted her in the kitchen.

The candidate has promised to veto the Dream Act, which would give amnesty to students who were brought to the US as infants. “Veto Romney, not the Dream,” Lucy’s fellow Dream Act supporters chanted.