Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
He came not to win, but to survive. He came not to pander, but to patronize. He came not to speak the language (no, he can’t), but to engage a hostile group (yes, he can).
Sen. Dean Heller strolled into Dona Maria’s restaurant near downtown Las Vegas on Friday morning knowing what was in store for him at a Hispanics in Politics breakfast: A crowd peppered with Democratic activists whose pumping salivary glands were almost audible and a media gaggle primed for pyrotechnics after Heller snubbed the Latin Chamber last year.
No fewer than six Heller operatives were in the room (and, hey, he has a Latino aide!), seemingly poised to whisk the senator out of the eatery should any trouble arise from the crowd or, more likely, the media. But trouble there was not, as the ever-friendly talking points machine deftly parried most questions, even the planted ones (DREAM Act, illegal immigration).
In the absence of any real conflict, though, those 45 minutes nevertheless provided a window into Heller’s race with Rep. Shelley Berkley, showcased the worst elements of politics and highlighted just how Washington prefers to exploit complex issues rather than solve them.
Heller has a naturally disarming way about him and a ready smile that serves him well as he answers questions by not answering questions. That talent was on display at the Hispanics in Politics breakfast as well as his almost cloying way of embracing anyone, even this Democrat-dominated organization. His brief remarks did not contain the words, “you people,” but his broad-brush painting of Hispanics as a monolith (we in the Fourth Estate are guilty of this, too), his grating “We agree on 80 percent” rote nonsense and his definition of that as “faith, family, community” were enough to induce a diabetic coma.
But the reaction of jaded cynics aside, the fact is Heller entered hostile territory to make his case, not retreating from his positions (“We disagree on the DREAM Act”) and unloading this gem: “I believe the Hispanic community has been let down by politicians who have taken you for granted, promised you the world and delivered nothing.”
He also patiently and cordially answered even the questions designed to embarrass him, including one inane attempt to make him look hypocritical because he spoke about the national debt and voted for earmarks (about 1 percent of the problem).
It’s that sort of nonsense that only coarsens and debases the debate, although often the public is just mimicking sound-bite candidates.
Heller showed little in-depth knowledge of most issues. Some politicians get into the weeds on policy; Heller tends to hide in the tall grass. And his rationale on opposing the DREAM Act was opaque.
When asked afterward by the AP’s Cristy Silva why he opposed the legislation that would allow young people brought here illegally to obtain a college education or enter the military, Heller said the act has “more bad things than good things” and said he opposes “amnesty for the 10 to 12 million” in the country.
Of course, the latter is not on point (and the word “amnesty” has lost all meaning since some guy named Reagan proposed it in 1986). And when I pressed the senator on what was so bad, he had no answer.
I would have felt better if he had just said, “Democrats want immigration reform because they will increase their voter rolls and we oppose it because it will increase their voter rolls.”
But even if Heller has no real answers on immigration — he offered to sit down with Latin Chamber boss Otto Merida and talk (that ought to solve everything) — neither do most of the Democrats, who love using the issue to mobilize voters. And it will probably work — the Democrats immediately pounced on Heller for reiterating his DREAM Act opposition — just as it will for Heller to keep repeating his mantra, as he did Friday, that he opposed the bailouts, stimulus and Cash for Clunkers. Actually, I bet that resonated with some of the less closed minds in that room Friday morning.
I am sure the Democrats were disappointed more blood was not drawn. They still remember Sharron Angle, but Dean Heller is not going to tell some in a Hispanic crowd that they look Asian to him.
Likewise, Heller is not going to change many Hispanic minds because, as he mentioned Friday, he is a sponsor of “The Smithsonian American Latino Museum Act.” I did not see any eyes light up.
Can Heller stop the Democrats from pushing a majority of Hispanics to vote for Rep. Shelley Berkley because of their records? No he can’t. But because of his willingness to reach out and his message that the administration has failed the community, can he possibly stanch the electoral hemorrhaging among Latinos?
Si se puede.