Late last month, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin conducted a cringe-worthy interview with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). The interview meandered from questions about how Cruz plans to appeal to Latino voters to what appeared to be a series of requests that Cruz, who is Cuban American, prove that he is really, truly, authentically Cuban. By the end of the interview, when Halperin asks Cruz to say a few words “en Español,” one can’t help but think that Cruz had unwittingly wandered into a minstrel show, with Halperin demanding that Cruz perform for an audience.
Though Halperin begins the interview by raising a legitimate topic — a speech Cruz gave to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — his conversation with Cruz quickly goes off the rails. “Your last name is Cruz and you’re from Texas,” Halperin asks Cruz. “Just based on that, should you have appeal to Hispanic voters?”
Halperin’s suggestion that Hispanic voters may base their vote solely on the ethnicity of a particular candidate is actually a relative high point of the interview. The next question begins with Halperin telling Cruz that “people are really interested in you and your identity,” before Halperin asks whether Cruz listed himself as “Hispanic” when he applied to college and law school. Over the course of the next five minutes, Halperin demands that Cruz identify his “favorite Cuban food” and his “favorite “Cuban singer.”
Halperin concludes the interview with what appears to be a request that Cruz prove his Spanish-language skills: “I wanted to give you the opportunity to welcome your colleague Senator Sanders to the race and I’d like you to do it, if you would, en Español.”
The interview sparked outrage among conservative writers over the weekend. Hot Air called it a “train wreck.” Twitchy mocked “Bloomberg Politics reporter-turned-ethnic policeman Mark Halperin.” PJ Media’s Rick Moran opined that “[a]sking Cruz to say something in Spanish is akin to asking a black person to eat watermelon or start dancing.”
Though the interview originally aired on April 30, it began to attract attention after syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette criticized it in the San Jose Mercury-News. “I felt like I was watching a college fraternity have fun with racial stereotypes,” Navarrette wrote, comparing the interview to a “’border party’ where people show up in serapes and fake mustaches.”
The conservative group Digitas Daily put together some of the lowlights of the interview:
It’s unclear what Halperin thought he was accomplishing with this line of questioning. To the extent that Halperin was probing whether Latino voters would flock to Cruz because of his ancestry, the answer to that question is already known. In 2012, when Cruz ran for Senate, a poll by the organization Latino Decisons indicated that Cruz would receive 35 percent of the Latino vote. That’s slightly less than the 36 percent that white Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) received in 2008.
To the extent that Halperin was questioning whether a right-wing politician like Cruz can also be authentically Cuban, that suggests a different kind of ignorance on Halperin’s part. Though pollsters and pundits often lump all voters who descend from Spanish-speaking cultures under the generic label of “Hispanic,” there is a great deal of diversity among these voters. Cuban Americans, for example, tend to be much more conservative than other voters who fall under the “Hispanic” umbrella. In 2012, Florida exit polls found that Cuban American voters narrowly split (49–47) their vote between President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, while non-Cuban Hispanic voters preferred Obama over Romney by a 66–34 margin.
Though polls indicate that Cuban Americans are trending Democratic, this trend is driven at least partially by generational changes — older Cuban Americans are more likely to support Republicans than younger Cuban Americans. In any event, there is nothing bizarre or even unusual about Cruz, a second-generation Cuban American, also being a conservative Republican.
Whatever drove Halperin to grill Cruz about his Cuban bona fides, however, Halperin’s critics are right to lay into him. Ted Cruz should be judged based on whether his policies will help or harm voters, not based on whether he can name his favorite Cuban musician.
Halperin released a statement responding to criticism of his interview:
We wanted to talk with Senator Cruz about his outreach to Latino voters the day after he spoke at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. My intent was to give the Senator a chance to speak further about his heritage and personal connections to the community through some casual questions. I rushed through the questions, and that was a mistake — it led to poor tone and timing. I also understand why some felt the questions were inappropriate. As for asking Senator Cruz to welcome Senator Sanders to the race in Spanish, that was meant to be the type of light-hearted banter that he’s done with us before on the show. In no way was I asking Senator Cruz to “prove” he was an “authentic” Latino. I apologize to those that were offended, and to Senator Cruz. I promise that I will work to make the tone and questions better next time.