Sen. John McCain's remark about the origin of chimichangas wound up as a controversial line in a column and a tweet.

Story highlights

Ruben Navarrette: A columnist said the only thing the GOP has to offer Latinos is "chimichangas"

When Obama's campaign manager tweeted the line, the GOP complained

Navarrette says the statement was wrong; Republicans do offer policies Hispanic voters like

He says it's a bad idea to tell an ethnic group what you think they should value

Editor’s Note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego, California CNN —  

Condescension is never appetizing. Not even when it’s wrapped around a chimichanga.

A political food fight broke out this week when Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank essentially wrote in a column that the Republican Party had nothing left to offer Latino voters other than the chimichanga.

Let me set the table. Milbank was making a point that I’ve made dozens of times myself: Given the nation’s demographics and the direction they’re headed, the GOP is on a suicide mission if it continues to alienate Hispanics.

One way that Senate Republicans were doing that, Milbank insisted, was by dragging their feet on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Adalberto Jose Jordan to the 11th Circuit of Appeals. On Wednesday, the Senate finally confirmed him, in a 95-4 vote. Jordan will be the first Cuban-born judge to sit on that bench.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

But for a long time, Senate Republicans seemed intent on preventing that from occurring. They filibustered the nomination by doing what senators in both parties do during a filibuster: spouting nonsense for hours on end.

Milbank seized on the nonsense that came from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. The senator’s remarks really had nothing to do with Latinos. They were about Arizona.

“The lettuce in your salad this month almost certainly came from Arizona,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “It’s also believed that the chimichanga has its origin in Arizona.”

Milbank sneered: “The chimichanga? It may be the only thing Republicans have left to offer Latinos.”

That told me that Milbank’s knowledge of Latinos was a taco short of a combination plate. As dysfunctional as the modern-day Republican Party is with regard to immigration – in large part, because it has basically volunteered to be the party of white Americans who are freaked out over shifting demographics – the GOP offers Latinos quite a bit in other areas.

For instance, a major reason you have even a sliver of accountability in America’s public schools is because a Republican president – George W. Bush – pushed through the No Child Left Behind, the most important educational reform measure in 50 years.

What does it tell you that the law is opposed by liberal teachers’ unions but supported by the National Council of La Raza – the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group? What it tells me is that, when it comes to education reform and a host of other issues, the interests of the Democratic Party and its allies are not always in sync with the interests of the Latino community.

Republicans also offer Latinos a full menu of conservative selling points: strong defense, smaller government, lower taxes, pro-life judges and a defense of traditional marriage.

By the way, as someone who is pro-choice and supports gay marriage, those parts of the GOP message don’t work on me. But the point is, they do work on Latinos who are more socially conservative.

Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, eagerly bit into Milbank’s snarky quote, sending it out in a tweet.

Of course he did. It’s not like someone such as Messina has much else to do, with regard to Latino voters. The modern Democratic Party strategy for Hispanic outreach amounts to simply this: “Hola! Vote for us. We’re not Republicanos!”

I can’t blame Messina for opportunistically seizing on a quote from someone else that he thinks will make his job easier. That is what political operatives do.

But I do blame Milbank. His remark was uninformed and uncalled for. Latinos can trace their ancestry to a variety of different countries, and they’re not interchangeable.

Chimichangas might mean something to Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, but where does that leave Dominicans, Cubans, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans and others? Also, it’s never a good idea for someone who isn’t Latino to presume to know what appeals to Latinos. Lastly, if it’s not too much to ask, just once I’d like to not be defined by a food group.

That’s what Hillary Clinton did when, during the 2008 presidential campaign, she told Hispanic voters gathered in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas that the problems of all Americans are interconnected despite that “we treat them as though one is guacamole and one is chips.”

Politicians have dished out this tactic for years. In his congressional and Senate races, Lyndon Johnson went into the Hispanic enclaves of south Texas and handed out tacos and beer.

Years later, President Gerald Ford tried to bond with a Hispanic audience by taking a bite out of a tamale. Bill Clinton loved Mexican food and consumed it with gusto. During a visit to a Mexican restaurant in Tucson in the late 1990s, Clinton showed his affinity with Hispanics by eating enough to satisfy an entire Mexican family.

No political party is perfect. And neither Republicans nor Democrats are doing a very good job of serving Latinos at the moment. On the immigration issue, both have failed us.

But the truth is that, despite what some liberals want Latinos to believe, the GOP offers a lot to that community. At moments like this, however, liberal Democrats offer only sarcasm, insults and condescension.

It’s enough to give you indigestion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.