The politics of Cuba: Hillary’s shrewd chess move

     Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton calls on Congress to end the trade embargo the U.S. has imposed against Cuba since 1962, Friday, July 31, 2015, during a campaign stop at Florida International University in Miami.  (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton calls on Congress to end the trade embargo the U.S. has imposed against Cuba since 1962, Friday, July 31, 2015, during a campaign stop at Florida International University in Miami. (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)

    Hillary haters insist that her emails are a major scandal that could wreck her candidacy. But if they understood the first thing about politics, they’d realize that what she said Friday in Florida was far more likely to impact her prospects — beneficially so.

    Hillary’s Miami gig, where she called for the lifting of the failed 50-year economic embargo of Cuba, has already vanished from the news cycle. It deserves better. It was a shrewd political chess move by a candidate who’s playing the long game. She struck at the heart of the GOP electoral calculus.

    There’s no plausible way Republicans can win back the White House without winning Florida. There’s no plausible way Republicans can win Florida unless they score major gains with the state’s fastest-growing electorate, Latinos. And there’s no plausible way they can score major gains with Latinos unless they do very, very well with Cuban Americans.

    During the long Cold War, Republicans had a lock on Florida’s Cuban Americans. Republicans hated Fidel Castro and championed the economic embargo; Cuban Americans responded with landslide GOP balloting. But times have changed. The Cold War is over, the fiercest Castro-haters are dying off, and young Cuban American voters want to thaw relations with the old homeland. And in domestic politics, they’re tilting Democratic.

    On Friday, Hillary spoke directly to those young voters in pivotal Miami-Dade County. She said that lifting the economic embargo, and forging new business ties with the island, would ultimately benefit “the young entrepreneur in (Miami’s) Little Havana, who dreams of expanding to old Havana.”

    Rest assured, Cuban-American voters care a lot more about making money with Cuba (and establishing closer ties with family members in Cuba) than they care about Hillary’s private email server. Rest assured, Cuban-American voters care about Hillary’s Cuba proposals, and couldn’t care less about The New York Times’ multiple email story screwups.

    Granted, Hillary’s lift-the-embargo stance is relatively new. She used to support the embargo, and her husband signed legislation strengthening the embargo. She said Friday, “I did not come to this (new) position lightly,” and indeed there’s manifest evidence that the embargo has failed as policy. In her words, the embargo has become “an albatross around our necks,” because it allowed the Castros to dig in and blame all the island’s woes on America. But most importantly, Hillary’s flip-flop (or evolution) is shrewd politics.

    Meanwhile, in response to Hillary’s Cuba speech, Florida-based Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio partied like it’s still 1959. Natch. Jeb said it was “insulting to many Miami residents for Hillary to come,” and Rubio said that lifting the economic embargo would be “a mistake.” They’re still waging the Cold War – much to the exasperation of the American business community, which wants to invest in Cuba before the Germans and the Chinese grab everything up – seemingly blind to the fact that their reactionary stance is a political loser.

    The polling stats tell the tale. As recently as 2002, 64 percent of Cuban Americans identified as Republican; by 2013, the GOP’s share of that electorate had dropped 17 points. Today, 56 percent of young Cubans (aged 18 to 49) identify as Democrats. This sea change is particularly strong in Miami-Dade, which is home to nearly half the nation’s Cuban-American voters. Between 2006 and 2014, the number of all registered Latino Democrats jumped 66 percent; the number of all registered Latino Republicans barely moved.

    Another way to measure the historic change: Back in 1991, according to pollsters, 87 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade favored the economic embargo; today, 52 percent want the embargo to end.

    And even if Republicans did somehow manage to score well among Cuban American voters in ’16 by playing the Cold War card, they’d still have problems winning Florida. Cubans used to comprise nearly half of the Florida Latino electorate; today, they’re 31 percent. Most Florida Latino voters hail from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America – and they’re overwhelmingly Democratic. What Hillary said on Friday will resonate with them as well. Indeed, among Latinos nationwide, 75 percent support the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and 72 percent support lifting the embargo.

    So if Hillary’s opponents prefer to ignore demographic reality in Florida, they’re welcome to try. But it’s hard to win at politics while wearing a blindfold.

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    Hey, the first GOP debate happens Thursday night!

    Umpteen millions of words will be written in advance of the Fox News spectacle (my words will appear Thursday morning) – but, as usual, Doonesbury gets it deliciously right with less than 100.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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