The National Council of La Raza wraps up its Kansas City conference today without hearing from any of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates. It did hear from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, all Democrats.
The reluctance of the GOP candidates to meet with La Raza seems like an unforced error. On the merits, it may make sense: It’s unlikely any Republican could have said anything to change the minds of large numbers of conference attendees.
The politics are another matter. Let’s say you’re a middle-tier Republican candidate in this hyper-crowded field: Lindsey Graham, maybe, or Chris Christie. Mike Huckabee, perhaps. John Kasich. Your job, at this early date, is to draw some attention to your campaign.
What better way to do that than attend the La Raza conference? Instantly, the cable TV yakkers would view you as the one Republican brave enough to raise the GOP banner at a Latino gathering. You might get additional points for arguing for a more conservative approach to immigration reform. And you’d become the anti-Donald Trump at a time when the TV personality and businessman is milking his particular brand of xenophobia for an early lead in some polls.
Some of Trump’s popularity is a mirage. Outsider candidates always do well early on, when true believers of all political persuasions are the only people paying attention (other than reporters). Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann are good examples. They quickly fade.
But the early attention for Trump — and for Bernie Sanders, the Democrats’ outsider, and Rand Paul, the quasi-libertarian — also reflects an important 2016 phenomenon. Voters are really looking for something new this year — something that seems genuine.
It’s hard to remember a time when voters seemed more disgusted with their government. That frustration will mean problems for any candidate too connected with Washington, including perceived front-runners such as Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush.
That creates an opening for other candidates, but they face hurdles from the opposite direction. They must find a way to attract true believers while edging toward the center, a journey few make successfully. Every compromise chases a base voter away.
The answer is to make your positions less important than courage and integrity. You may not like what I say, but you admire my willingness to say it.
More than a dozen Republican presidential candidates were offered a chance to show that courage this weekend in Kansas City. All of them passed, and their campaigns may suffer for it.