Misreading the Cuba Vote

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Jeff Chiu / AP

A supporter of John McCain holds up a Cuban flag at a Miami speech by the candidate about the Colombia Free Trade agreement and Cuban Independence Day.

John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, no doubt believes he scored a 10 with his hard-line Cuba policy speech in Miami earlier this week. But presidential candidates, like figure skaters, are often judged on the originality of their moves —and in that regard McCain may be staring at lower marks in the crucial swing state of Florida than his campaign appreciates.

McCain got the jump on Barack Obama, who is slated to speak to the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami on Friday. But while Obama is expected to outline a more nuanced approach to Cuba, McCain's visit to Little Havana and his speech to more conservative Cuban-Americans were rote repeats of the routine every White House hopeful performs in Miami: cafe cubano at the Versailles restaurant followed by equally caffeinated bellowing about his anti-Castro bona fides and the Cuba-policy cowardice of his opponent, in this case Obama. President Franklin Roosevelt "didn't talk with Hitler," McCain argued, attacking Obama's recent suggestion that if elected President he would open a dialogue with communist Cuba's leader, Raul Castro, as well as leaders of other hostile nations such as Iran.

The McCain mambo, not surprisingly, got robust applause at the town hall meeting he addressed. But outside those walls the response was more subdued. If McCain is vulnerable to the charge that his presidency would effectively be a Bush third term, he might want to explore Florida beyond the echo chamber of the older Cuban exile community. He's likely to find a growing number of younger, more moderate Cuban-Americans who no longer believe the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba will topple the Castro regime and who yearn to hear candidates discuss matters besides Cuba, like the alarming lack of accessible health care among Latinos. "Waving the bloody shirt of anti-Castro politics is going to be less effective" in this election, says political analyst Dario Moreno of Florida International University in Miami. "The Cuba issue is losing its saliency."

Even moderate Cuban-Americans want to see the Castros gone and democracy returned to their ancestral island. But most resent President Bush's policy of letting them visit their relatives in Cuba only once every three years (although Bush announced on Wednesday that he'll allow Americans to send cell phones to Cubans now that Raul Castro has permitted his citizens to own them). And when recent surveys show that even a majority of Miami Cubans, of all people, favor relaxing the restrictions — in an FIU poll 55% backed unlimited travel to Cuba — it's probably time for U.S. politicians to drop the one-string embargo banjo and pick up a new instrument for effecting change across the Florida Straits.

That's especially true when you look at what's happening in the three major Miami congressional districts this year. For the past two decades the G.O.P.'s hold on those seats has been unassailable thanks to the hard-line Cuban-Americans occupying them. But this week the Cook Report, a Beltway guide to state and local elections, changed its "rating" on Florida's 21st congressional district from "solidly Republican" to "likely Republican" — a sign that Democratic challenger Raul Martinez is a genuine threat to eight-term Republican incumbent Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Martinez, in fact, has so far been able to match Diaz-Balart in fund raising — and new reports that Democratic voter registration growth is significantly outstripping that of Republicans in Miami bodes ill for the G.O.P. in the 18th and 25th districts as well.

What's more, for a candidate who sells himself as the foreign policy sage in the field, McCain at times sounded more like the diplomatic neophyte he accuses Obama of being. McCain, for instance, insisted that he could and would get the hemisphere and the world on board with our failed Cuba policy. But after half a century it's fairly clear by now that while our allies may strongly disapprove of Cuba's politics and human rights record, they view their economic and diplomatic engagement with Cuba as no more out of line than our economic and diplomatic engagement with iron-fisted regimes like China and Saudi Arabia. In fact, if McCain were as serious as he declared about improving U.S. relations with Latin America, he would realize that the region's lingering grievances about our high-handed approach to the hemisphere are often tied to our perceived Cuba hypocrisy.

Presidential candidates, of course, typically spout the same macho rhetoric on Cuba because they believe it's essential to winning Florida, which in turn is essential to winning the White House. But the state — especially the growth of its non-Cuban Latino community, which is often irritated by all the attention thrust on Cuba — has changed more than McCain and the G.O.P. seem to realize. The Democrats, of course, haven't been much more clued in themselves in recent years. But Obama has already signaled that when he gives his own speech in Miami, he's likely to challenge at least bits of the status quo — he supports letting Cuban-Americans visit Cuba and send remittances to relatives there whenever they want, for example. In a Miami Herald op-ed article last summer, Obama insisted that those family ties are "our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy" in Cuba, and suggested he would be more willing than the Miami hard-liners to normalize relations with the Castro government. So despite the Hitler analogies, Obama at least seems willing to bet that the peninsula is ready for a more original approach to dealing with the island.