CHICAGO -- I looked at Hispanic dissatisfaction over Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick with more than a little skepticism. After all, if Paul Ryan isn't a suitable choice to the most vocal Latinos who are complaining about the Wisconsin congressman, who would they have preferred?
Arguably many of these very politically attuned Hispanics have been engaged in the debate since the harsh immigration rhetoric that boiled over in 2005 with Republican-sponsored legislation that, among other things, threatened to criminalize anyone assisting unlawful immigrants. In the years after the massive immigration reform marches that followed House passage of that legislation, the rallying cry that emerged was "Today we march, tomorrow we vote."
These days that cry is voiced most often by immigrant advocacy organizations. It was many of their representatives who jumped to echo the comments of the talking heads, Latino and otherwise, who immediately declared that Ryan wouldn't help Romney's standing with Hispanics, that he's "out of touch" with the Latino vote, and that his selection signals that the presumptive GOP nominee is essentially writing off Hispanics.
These critics are the same people who would have scoffed even if Romney had gone really bold and picked a minority woman, such as New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (the daughter of Sikh immigrants) or a Latino such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, or even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (America's first Indian-American governor). Those remarkable superstars have each earned a pariah status as "traitors" in certain liberal and minority circles because they happen to embrace Republican ideology. So to imagine that a more "diverse" choice would have won Romney any converts is laughable.
It should be noted that more independent-minded Latino voters who don't evaluate a candidate's worthiness for office solely on their official party or immigration policy might have been truly impressed if Romney had chosen a running mate who could change the face of the Republican Party. Some of us keep pining for the day when we're past having two parties but only one that is more diverse and inclusive.
But it was probably too much to hope that Romney would put the responsibility of dragging the Republican Party into the multicultural 21st century ahead of veering rightward to placate the GOP's conservative base.
Still, there are nuances to this Hispanic disappointment, even after you set aside the idea that the most vocal opposition to Ryan would have opposed any running mate with restrictionist views on immigration.
"I was surprised, then puzzled, then shocked," said Gabe Gonzalez, the national campaign director for the Campaign for Community Change, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization for low-income and minority communities. He believes the Ryan pick was a huge boon for Democrats. "You'd think Romney would try to reach out to the center but Ryan does not speak to the majority and, in fact, alarms the Democratic base."
"For Latinos it has always been all about jobs and education, with immigration coming in third place and themes of hard work, faith and family security playing very well," Gonzalez told me. "But though Ryan wasn't well-known to Latinos, they figured out what he's all about. What immediately ticked them off was his views on tax cuts and like most Americans they said 'You're kidding!'"
In truth, Ryan is still a bit of a mystery to everyone outside his home state. Though some have rejoiced that one of his strengths is that he's so sunny and evenhanded that he won't easily be caricatured as an extremist, others have either lamented that he's not fiscally conservative enough or flatly denounced him as a "right-wing" ideologue.
It doesn't matter either way. In 2008, President Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate was roundly criticized, yet had no real bearing on the outcome. Latino voters, like everyone else, will be picking the candidate based on whether they want a big, benefit-ladling government or a small one that can rein in its spending. And on that score Romney is even -- his bet on Ryan was not a "dis" to minorities but rather a decent-odds gamble on the Anyone-But-Obama vote.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.