Friday, May 18, 2012

Oh, Susana:
A GOP governor embraces pragmatism

EVEN THOUGH former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hasn’t officially secured the Republican nomination, the handicapping for Romney’s choice for a running mate has begun. A number of high-profile names has been making the rounds for weeks, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman among the most notable.

There have been others. For example, whispers of the name of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley surfaced a while ago, but her state’s singular style of identity politics may be a problem.

Jake Knotts, a South Carolina Republican state senator, gave some hint of that in June 2010, when he was recorded speaking off the cuff at a Palmetto State bar. As a guest on “Pub Politics,” an Internet talk radio show, Knotts aired his problems with Haley, who is of Indian descent, running for governor. “We got a raghead in Washington, we don’t need a raghead in the statehouse.”

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The name of another possible Romney running mate, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, was floated a while back. Comments made Monday by the governor — pushing back against Romney on the matter of undocumented aliens living in the United States — would seem to rule her out. But maybe not.

In an interview with Newsweek, Martinez discussed Romney’s support for the idea of “self-deportation,” a concept by which state and local governments would find ways to make life so miserable for undocumenteds that they willingly return to their own countries.

“Self-deport? What the heck does that mean?” Martinez said. “I have no doubt Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign. But now there's an opportunity for Gov. Romney to have a sincere conversation about what we can do and why.”

“I absolutely advocate for comprehensive immigration reform,” Martinez said. “Republicans want to be tough and say, ‘Illegals, you’re gone.’ But the answer is a lot more complex than that.”

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THAT LAST sentence may be the deal-breaker for Martinez’s chances in the veepstakes. Conservative philosophy on illegal immigration has long been at odds with complexity; for many of the most visible and influential conservatives on the political scene, “complex” is a code word for “compromise,” and they’ll have absolutely none of that.

But in other ways, Martinez may be (as Newsweek’s Andrew Romano suggests in his interview) the best running mate Romney could possibly choose: a conservative who’s not a drooling captive of every conservative talking point, a politician grounded enough in working-class reality to be accessible to the kind of people Romney has no way to understand, and no inclination to try.

Martinez, 52, has the apostate courage to support Medicare — a line of thinking deeply at odds with the prevailing GOP meat-axe approach to minding the social safety net, typified by the draconian Path to Prosperity budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan. “I believe in providing services to adults and children who can’t take care of themselves,” she told Newsweek. “Sometimes Republicans engage in number-crunching analysis that doesn’t always take the neediest into account. We have to factor them in before we start proposing these cuts.”

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She may well boost her prospects for the vice presidency by denying she’s interested — not with the strategic denial of interest Christie’s adopted, but what seems to be a genuine indifference to consideration for a place on a Romney ticket for the reason everyday Americans can understand: Family.

“Partly it’s my responsibility to my sister,” she told Newsweek, alluding to her sister Leticia, who has cerebral palsy. “Moving to Washington would be devastating to her. But also, I need to finish this job. I have to deliver the results I promised, because as the first Hispanic female governor, I’m going to pave a path of some kind. I want it to be one that little Hispanic girls will want to follow.”

Martinez’s biggest disadvantage may have less to do with who she is and more to do with who she’s not. Recently, there’s been talk that Team Romney — eager to avoid the glittering debacle of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 — is inclined to stick with what one Republican insider described for Politico as an “incredibly boring white guy.” God only knows where they’ll find one of those.

But if the Romney campaign is determined to seek victory in November by being everything the McCain campaign was not, they may do themselves more harm than good by overlooking Martinez. She could be precisely the kind of pragmatic conservative that could help Romney’s bid to broaden his appeal in the general election campaign. And she could offer Republicans at least a shot at wooing Latinos eager to vote for someone who’s as much in their interest as in their image.

Image credits: Martinez: Jesse Chehak for Newsweek.

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