Op-Ed: Obama And Romney, Quit 'Hispandering'

Apr 23, 2012
Originally published on April 24, 2012 11:19 am

Esther Cepeda recently learned a new word: "Hispandering." And, she writes in an op-ed for The Washington Post writers group, "it perfectly captures the spirit of the moment" in presidential politics.

Cepeda defines "Hispandering" as "never mind policy, trot out some Hispanic stars, drop a few words en espanol ... and do everything but don a golden-threaded mariachi sombrero while promising el mundo." And she sees President Obama and, to a lesser degree, Mitt Romney, clearly pandering to Hispanic voters in the run-up to the 2012 election.

The most egregious example of Hispandering, to Cepeda, is how candidates talk about immigration. "If you look at the polls over and over and over again, you see that Hispanics say that the economy, jobs, education and health care is their No. 1 issue," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. So, she asks, "why are the candidates strictly going on immigration to target this particular community? Why is that the only conversation?"

Cepeda says there are right ways and wrong ways for candidates to reach out to Latino voters. For example, "it's natural for a campaign to reach out to people who are beloved figures in a particular community," says Cepeda. But it's important to consider how that will play with members of the group who are dealing with serious issues, such as "the Secure Communities program, for instance, or the DREAM Act students who feel like there's going to be nothing for them in the next four years regardless of who becomes president."

Tell us: Whichever group you belong to, how can you tell when a politician is pandering for your vote?

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And now, The Opinion Page. And as columnist Esther Cepeda saw the major party presidential candidates reach out for Latino votes, she took note of a recent coinage - the word Hispandering, a symbolic or token gesture toward the country's largest minority group. She joins us in a moment. But all of us can identify with one group or another. If you're not Latino, maybe you're a baby-boomer, or part of the youth vote, African-American or Asian. Yeah, you get the idea.

Whatever group you belong to, call and tell us how you can tell when a politician panders for your vote. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There, you can also find a link to Esther Cepeda's op-ed. She's syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and joins us now from her home in Chicago. Nice to have you with us today.

ESTHER CEPEDA: Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

CONAN: And we just noticed that Mitt Romney is campaigning with Marco Rubio in Pennsylvania, but you also note that this is not exclusive to Republicans, at least not this year.

CEPEDA: No. He's interesting at a point, right now, in trying to, quote and unquote, "pivot over to a different message towards Hispanics." And there's talk about whether Kris Kobach is still his main adviser or merely a supporter. He says nothing's changed. The Romney campaign is, kind of, trying to go back and forth on that.

CONAN: Mr. Kobach, of course, one of the authors of the immigration law in Arizona.

CEPEDA: Sure. Exactly. And which is going to be very much in the news, now, that - on Wednesday, the Supreme Court is going to take up discussing whether that is constitutional or not. So he's in a pickle this week.

CONAN: But he's not only said to be considering Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida, but the governor of New Mexico too, also a Latina.

CEPEDA: Sure. I think he has not made any - Romney has not made any official proclamations. But I think the days ahead a lot of mileage coming out of people speculating whether he is going to pick somebody Hispanic for a running mate. And, you know, what's interesting is that I've spoken to activist groups, advocacy groups all over the country, and a lot of them say, you know, Hispanics just don't really know Marco Rubio. They just don't know, you know, some of these people that he's considering. So how much of a bump that's going to give him, we're not quite sure yet, especially with some of the stances they themselves have taken on illegal immigration.

CONAN: So when does it become Hispandering - to use that word again?

CEPEDA: Well, specifically, I gave some examples in - of the Obama administration in the last couple of years. He - and especially about two years ago, where he went for a year not talking about any Latino issues. And then when Hispanic Heritage Month came up, he was everywhere and anywhere you could find him talking to any Hispanic group. In fact, there were groups of Dream Act-eligible students who went and chanted at his presentations that, he had done nothing to help pass the DREAM Act - complaining about secure communities, complaining about deportations, while he's trying to talk about how much he cares about the issue of immigration.

So I think it's interesting that, you know, we're coming back around to this whole Latinos for Obama, you know, we've got this whole community behind us, and yet, so many of people in this community are aggrieved because of the impact the deportations have had on them.

CONAN: Yet, if you look at the polls, I think something like 70 percent of Latinos say they will vote for President Obama.

CEPEDA: Exactly. I mean, it's a very interesting thing to look at. While you can look at some same polls and say that they are not interested in immigration as their top issue for the election - and that that is jobs and the economy - at the same time, you don't have a candidate that's running against him who has had mainstream opinions on the issue of immigration. You're looking at somebody who's saying, hey, self-deportation is the way to go. So a lot of people feel like they don't have any recourse but to get on the Obama bandwagon because the person that he's running against is much worse. So we're looking at a lesser of two evils here.

CONAN: Even if Eva Longoria and George Lopez are on up on the bandwagon with him?

CEPEDA: Exactly. I mean, I think, you know, it's natural for a campaign to reach out to people who are beloved figures in a particular community. But as many, many, many articles have delved into how is that going to play with the people who are very, very seriously dealing with the impact of the secure community's program, for instance, or the DREAM Act students who feel like there's going to be nothing for them in the next four years regardless of who becomes president.

CONAN: And is there something that you noted that you - this word was new to you. You'd seen it in a blog, but according to Urban Dictionary first appeared in 2008. But is there something to you that epitomizes Hispandering?

CEPEDA: You know, I just think that this idea of strictly talking about immigration is probably the best example of Hispandering. If you look at the polls over and over and over again, you see that Hispanics say that the economy, jobs, education and health care is their number one issue. Why are the candidates strictly going on immigration to target this particular community? Why is that the only conversation? I think that's the best example of Hispandering. Why not talk about the economic implications of particular policy matters, whether it'd be education or jobs? Why does immigration has to be the top thing?

CONAN: This email from Robert: How do you know when politicians are pandering to yours? Their lips are moving and Spanishy(ph) sounds are emitting, couldn't resist. It's about the only time candidates either speak Spanish or swear to deport all those illegals.

CEPEDA: That's right. I mean, like I've said before, it's great when anybody comes to you and tries to relate to you using your language. That's a sign of respect. To use that as kind of the plank on what you're going to start a relationship with a voter and yet not have much substance behind it completely denigrates the thought.

CONAN: We want to hear from the rest of our audience today, whatever group you may belong to, whether it be African-Americans or baby boomers or senior citizens or the youth vote or whether you've looked at strange people of different ethnicities marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade, when do you know you're being pandered to? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Richard, and Richard is calling us from Wichita.

RICHARD: Yeah. I'm white, middle-class, able-bodied male, and I know that I'm being pandered to whenever I hear a politician talk about law and order, or about people getting unnecessary entitlements, or who are being - taking our jobs, you know, immigration or outsourcing. That's when I know I'm being pandered to.

CONAN: So you feel like you're being stereotyped as something you're not necessarily?


CONAN: All right. Richard, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Esther Cepeda, tokenism is not another aspect of this?

CEPEDA: Sure it is. Sure it is. And like I said before, there's a fine line between listening to, acknowledging, respecting, welcoming people that have not been traditionally part of your base or even doing the same thing for the people that have been part of your base. But when you're taking little shortcuts by dropping little pop cultural things or like our last caller said, some, you know, thinly-veiled language about who we are compared to who they are, that crosses a line. It's a fine line, but people know when it gets crossed.

CONAN: Let's go next to James. James with us from Santa Clara in California.

JAMES: Yes. I'm African-American and part of the younger vote. And one thing I've noticed even during the last Obama campaign is the - I'll call it slanguage, depending on his audience. When he's speaking at the younger black audience, I just notice a lot of cliche remarks, and his verbiage - like I said, his slanguage is kind of just changes. There's this weird twang you notice when the environment or the audience changes. They'll start to drop names, maybe rappers' names, you know, things like the word bling, just to kind of draw in the younger African-American audience, and it's kind of how I've been able to recognize where the campaigning is taking place. Once I hear that verbiage, I start to think to myself, he's in a rural, more of a youth, maybe an African-American type neighborhood.

CONAN: So someone - all right. I speak your language, yo.

JAMES: Exactly.


CONAN: Yeah. I may have to work on that.


CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.

JAMES: Thank you.

CEPEDA: You know, that's a really interesting point because far more nuance than intelligence on the topic of the African-American vote writers than I have pointed out, that President Obama does, in fact, employ certain cadences, certain rhythms and certain cultural references when he speaks to primarily African-American audiences, and that has angered them because he - they have felt - some people had felt that President Obama has gone out of his way not to acknowledge the African-American community in order to portray himself as a post-black president. So that's a really, really interesting point that that listener brought up.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ross(ph), and Ross is with us from Oxford, Ohio.

ROSS: Yeah. I'm a Jewish student and whenever specifically Republican candidates talk about Israel, they just bash President Obama's policies, and I really feel that I'm being pandered to.

CONAN: This is yet still, though, an important issue of national security. It's not just asking for Jewish votes.

ROSS: Yes, I agree with that. But as a Jewish voter, I feel as if they're looking for my vote specifically when talking about Israel.

CONAN: OK. And donning yarmulke, is that something you have any problems with?


CONAN: All right. All right. Thanks very much.

ROSS: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about Hispandering, a word that was noticed by Esther Cepeda. You can find a link to her op-ed "Obama Should Quite Pandering" at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is the Opinion Page on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to - this is Libby(ph) is with us from Boise.

LIBBY: Hi, Neal. I actually wish that somebody would pander to me because I don't belong to any kind of pandering group, and I feel left out and I'll tell you why. I'm too young to be a baby boomer, but I'm over 40. I don't have any kids. I've never been married, and I'm not gay. So I just wish that somewhere somebody would pander to me because, actually, there's a benefit to it, I think.

CONAN: What would the benefit be?

LIBBY: Well, because you feel like your issues, issues that are important to you are being thought about and shared about on a national level. And for me, I'm just a nothing person out there as far as my vote is concerned.

CONAN: Doesn't that put you in the Gen X category?

LIBBY: Well, I'm too old to be Gen X, I think.

CONAN: Oh, OK. All right.

CEPEDA: Never mind that. She's a woman. That's been one of the biggest pandering topics lately. Do women care only about birth control? Or do women only care about staying at home versus working? I mean, in a very, very specific way, pandering to women has taken on this life by relegating them to reproductive issues or mommy issues. That's another perfect example of pandering even though, apparently, it doesn't translate to the people that the pandering itself is being done toward.

CONAN: Libby, are you making up signs and drawing up placards even as we speak?

LIBBY: About saying what?

CONAN: On your women's issues now.

LIBBY: You know, I don't have the women issues that a lot of other people have because I don't have children, and I'm not part of a two-family household and that kind of stuff. So it's - I need to come up with a good slogan.

CONAN: All right. Get back to us when you do.

LIBBY: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to Leah(ph). Leah with us from Miami.

LEAH: Good morning. I live in Little Havana in Miami, and I'm Cuban-American, and I noticed that even my most extreme right-wing nationalist Cuban neighbors are over it with the Republicans who came here as candidates. They'll go to Calle Ocho, 8th Street, and predictably say that they are all for finishing off Castro, that Castro will die within six months, that their first move in the presidential office will be to sign a law somehow, you know, adverse to Castro. Even people were disgusted with it after awhile. They go to the same restaurants. Sometimes they even use nationalist terms used by Castro. They make a mistake and say something like (foreign language spoken), which is actually a communist (unintelligible).


CONAN: So it's not the policies necessarily that they would disagree with. It's the mere embrace of them at an opportunistic moment.

LEAH: It's an insult to the intelligence because it's so predictable. They would come down here and say the exact same thing in the almost exact luxurious restaurants which most people do not go there. There's nothing typically Cuban about it or typically Miami because Miami - because there's so many different groups. That's why even they say that most nationalistic Cubans are over it. They laugh at it. They think it's an insult.

CONAN: All right. Leah, thanks very much for the call.

LEAH: You're welcome.

CONAN: Location, Esther Cepeda, that's very important. Candidates used to always go to Charlotte Street in the Bronx to talk about the, you know, the ruin of the ghetto, the urban ghetto, or if they go to the border just to make a statement there, is that a moment to be suspicious of Hispandering?

CEPEDA: Well, I think it would be great if people were really well-informed when they do that. For instance, you know, in Chicago, we have two major neighborhoods where there are extreme concentrations of Latinos, and yet there are so many spots around the city that have tremendously large Latino concentrations that they could mine a new ground. You don't always have to go to Pilsen or Little Village. When you go to Miami, you don't always have to go to Calle Ocho, like the last caller said.

And, you know, just to put a point on what she was saying, when we have the Republican debates and they were in Florida, just think about the outsized amount of time that Castro and Cuba took up in terms of that particular discussion, and nobody ever mentions it anywhere. I mean, if Castro is that important, they should be talking about him in New York as well, you know? We've got Cubans in Chicago too. So it's like, you know, it's just the simplistic sort of stereotypes that come out when politicians want to connect. They really need to do some more research.

CONAN: This email from Chrissie(ph): I'm African-American. I know I'm being pandered to when the white politicians show up at my predominantly-black church Sunday morning waving his hand, sitting on the front row waiting to be acknowledged and doesn't stay for the entire church service. He/she would not even consider attending or visiting my church if they were not running for office.

So examples of pandering. And, Esther Cepeda, thank you for introducing us to the word Hispandering. We appreciate it.

CEPEDA: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, Esther Cepeda joined us from her home in Chicago. Her op-ed ran in the Miami Herald. There's a link to it at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, the rough job market for new college graduates. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.