Bush's back door to Latino vote?

Nearing the completion of his first 100 days, President Bush may address Canada's French- and English-speaking prime minister, Jean Chretien, as "amigo." At a news conference at the Quebec summit, he may deliver lines like, "It's very important for folks to understand that when there's more trade, there's more commerce."

But there's no doubting the seriousness of the president's new-found dedication to the cause of hemispheric free trade. It is a cause, a White House official told The Wall Street Journal, that has become "a top legislative priority, surpassing even Social Security and Medicare reform."

The question is why Mr. Bush has chosen to embrace this third effort in seven years to bring down trade barriers from the Arctic to the tip of Argentina (minus Cuba). He will have to expend a lot of political assets, trying to get from a resistant Congress "fast-track authority" - now termed "trade-promotion authority" - to keep a trade agreement, if one is negotiated, from being nibbled to death by Senate debate and amendment.

Where goes free trade, says the president, goes democracy - although that may be arguable, looking at China. But there might be a closer-to-home reason for becoming the champion of economic relations with our friends south of the border. That reason lies in the year 2000 census and the way it is changing the country's political landscape.

Since 1990, the Latino population has grown 58 percent, to 35.3 million people, pulling about even with blacks. In Florida and California, Latinos now outnumber blacks.

This is a matter of great concern to the White House inner circle known as the "Strategery Group."

According to The Washington Post, these senior advisers calculate that if minorities vote in 2004 in the same percentages as last year, Bush would lose by three-and-a-half million votes. The challenge to the White House is to prevent Latinos from becoming as solidly Democratic as blacks.

At that point, foreign-trade policy merges with political policy. President Bush clearly intends to be not only a good neighbor to Latin countries, but the best neighbor on the block.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), will be published in May.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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