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8 ways the GOP’s State of the Union response was different in Spanish — and why it matters

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

For three of the last four years, the GOP has given one response to the State of the Union, but gave it twice: once in English, and once translated into Spanish. This year, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) delivered the speech in English, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), one of his party's lone immigration reformers, delivered it in Spanish.

The initial GOP press release billed the Spanish speech as a "translation," but it was clear to anyone who listened to both versions that these were two different responses to President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union — tailored to two different audiences.

Ernst laid out a version of the GOP agenda that dodged immigration reform, and other policy topics that are controversial among Republican voters — but important to Latinos. Curbelo included them, as well as making other substantial changes to the text of the speech. (Curbelo told the Miami Herald that he'd made the changes himself.)

The two speeches never contradicted each other; they weren't intended as doublespeak. But the omissions, additions, and nuances in phrasing added up to an impressive speech. They're evidence that the Republican Party is building Spanish-language communications capacity — something that both parties have sometimes struggled to do in the past — and thinking really hard about how to reach out to Latino voters.

Furthermore, the speech was notable because, for once, the GOP wasn't competing against their own Latino outreach with hardline comments on immigration from other Republicans (although Steve King wrote an insulting tweet about a "deportable"). The choices made in Curbelo's speech were able to stand on their own, as a roadmap for what GOP Latino outreach might look like — if the immigration issue didn't get in their way.

Here are eight of the most important differences between the speech Ernst gave for the GOP in English, and the speech Curbelo gave in Spanish.

1) A mention of immigration reform

GOP latino vote

There for the taking! (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Group)

Ernst said:


Curbelo said:

We must also work, through the proper channels, to create permanent solutions to our immigration system — to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy.

Ernst didn't touch immigration reform in her speech. Curbelo, meanwhile, inserted a passage into his speech that acknowledged that Republicans need to help find solutions to the problem.

While Curbelo is much more sympathetic to unauthorized immigrants than other House Republicans, he avoided that particular question in favor of policies (more border security and high-skilled immigration) that most of his colleagues support. But his decision to include immigration at all, while Ernst didn't, is a sign that this speech was meant to resonate with Latinos in a deeper way.

2) ...and education reform

ESL students

Two ESL students. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor)

Ernst said:


Curbelo said:

We should also continue to promote reforms in our schools and universities, to better serve our children (and youth). Before coming to Congress, I was a member of the Miami Dade County School Board — one of the biggest school districts in the country. Working together, we put students and teachers first, and improved the quality of education in our schools. The neediest students are the ones who've benefited most.

Like the immigration passage, there's nothing objectionable to the rest of the GOP here — but it's another issue that didn't even make it into Ernst's speech. It's vague, but it comes as Senate Republicans start to overhaul No Child Left Behind, which they've said is a priority this spring.

3) Executive overreach is a possibility — not a done deal

Obama holding pen

Not pictured: phone. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Ernst said:

We'll work to correct executive overreach.

Curbelo said:

We won't stand around with arms crossed if the President legislates by decree. The Constitution assigns that responsibility to Congress.

Ernst, like most Republicans, believes that Obama has already committed at least one big act of executive overreach: his executive actions on immigration last fall. But notice the word "if" in Curbelo's version. Curbelo may or may not agree with Ernst (he doesn't appear to be enthusiastic about reversing Obama's immigration actions), but Latinos — including Latino Republicanscertainly don't. So while for Ernst executive overreach is something that's already there and needs to be corrected, for Curbelo it's a possibility to guard against.

4) A neoconservative approach to Cuba and Iran

cuban anti-castro

Many Cuban Americans in Miami dislike President Obama's new Cuba policy. Curbelo is one of them. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Ernst said:

We'll work to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Curbelo said:

It's also fundamental that the United States support its allies and hold its enemies accountable. We're worried about the undeserved concessions the president's administration has made to the regimes of Iran and Cuba. Both countries are ruled by cruel dictators who for decades have tried to harm our country and our allies.

Ernst's reference to Iran was buried toward the end of her speech, as part of a list of positions. Curbelo not only gave more airtime to attacking the president's Iran policy (and, unsurprisingly, Obama's attempt to reopen US/Cuba relations), he framed it as a moral question. (The issue of normalizing the US' relationship with Cuba is polarizing for older Cuban Americans who are deeply skeptical of the Castro regime, but unimportant to the younger generation of Cubans and non-Cuban Latinos.) Curbelo's sentiment wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from George W. Bush's mouth — at a time when many in the GOP don't sound like that at all.

5) Washington isn't necessarily the problem

tea party funeral

The idea that freedom and liberty died when Obama was elected might not resonate as much with Latinos. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

Ernst said:

We heard the message you sent in November - loud and clear. And now we're getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.

"The new Republican Congress also understands how difficult these past six years have been. For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington's dysfunction, weren't things we had to read about. We felt them every day.

Curbelo said:

We heard the message you sent in the last elections. We know there's a lot of frustration with Washington, and we want to change direction.

The new Republican Congress understands how difficult recent years have been for many families. The stagnant economy and the discord in Washington have left many of our citizens disillusioned, and believing that they and their children will have less opportunity.

Ernst said:

You just need the freedom to dream big, and a whole lot of hard work.

The new Republican Congress you elected is working to make Washington understand that too. And with a little cooperation from the President, we can get Washington working again.

Curbelo said:

In this country, success is for anyone who goes after it. That's the country that our Congress will fight to preserve and protect. And we'd like to count on the President.

Ernst's rhetoric is pretty standard for Republicans and conservatives: the Obama administration and government bureaucrats don't understand what really makes America great, and it's up to Republicans to remind them. But Curbelo's speech doesn't pin economic hardship on Obama (his "recent years" reference could be to the recession), and his speech implies the problem with Washington is more that the two sides can't get along than that one side gets America wrong. That message might resonate with Latinos who are still stinging from the failure of immigration reform in 2013.

6) A much more subtle attack on Obamacare

obamacare latino town hall

It wasn't so long ago that Obama was doing town halls urging Latinos to get covered. (Michael Reynolds/Pool/Getty)

Ernst said:

...but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare. It's a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.

Curbelo said:

But when the people of the United States have demanded solutions from Washington, the government's responded with failed policies that have widened the income gap between rich and poor in our country. Washington has refused to listen, and hasn't worked toward the goal of a healthy economy that offers opportunities to everyone who lives here — not just the most privileged.

Ernst said:

We'll also keep fighting to repeal and replace a health care law...

Curbelo said:

We'll also keep fighting to replace the President's health care law...

Obviously, Curbelo didn't pretend that the GOP supported Obamacare — though he did skip straight to the "replace" in "repeal and replace." But where Ernst took an opportunity to attack the law at more length, as the opposite of a "serious solution," Curbelo offered a more general attack on policies that exacerbate inequality (which policies, he didn't say) — echoing the newfound economic populism in some Republicans' rhetoric.

7) More emphasis on opportunity

In the first Curbelo passages in sections 5 and 6 above, he talks about economics in terms of opportunity — a theme Ernst doesn't use. It's a theme that might not appeal much to white Republican voters, who are more concerned about losing the world they already have. But it might appeal more to Latino voters who are younger, and aren't themselves as well off.

8) Cultural competency

latinos mass

Faith and family. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty)

Ernst said:

Just look at my parents and grandparents.

They had very little to call their own except the sweat on their brow and the dirt on their hands. But they worked, they sacrificed, and they dreamed big dreams for their children and grandchildren.

And because they did, an ordinary Iowan like me has had some truly extraordinary opportunities because they showed me that you don't need to come from wealth or privilege to make a difference.

Curbelo said:

Our families have demonstrated this. For centuries, men and women have come to this land of liberty with nothing but their faith and the desire to work for a better life for their children and grandchildren. And so they made their contribution to this, the greatest nation the world has ever known. This is the story of my family, and of yours. Thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before me, this child of political refugees can today represent his community in Congress.

The line "This is the story of my family, and of yours" jumps out. If Curbelo had used the same words as Ernst, no one would have thought it sounded odd — but he and his speechwriters went further. That's called cultural competency, and it's rarer than you might think.

There are even subtler differences. Ernst praises her ancestors for their ability to work hard; Curbelo talks about their faith and their devotion to their families. And where Ernst chalks her Congressional career up to "extraordinary opportunities," Curbelo describes it as "representing his community."

Of course, Carlos Curbelo isn't the only Republican whose words Latinos will hear between now and November 2016. And it's still overwhelmingly likely that the Republican presidential primary will force the eventual nominee to take a hardline position on immigration — which would be a dealbreaker to many Latinos. But Curbelo's speech was a window into what the GOP might be saying to Latinos if immigration were off the table as an issue. If and when that day comes, they might be better prepared than many Democrats assume.

CORRECTION: This post originally said that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)'s State of the Union response, as broadcast on Fox News, did not refer to immigration. While Sen. Cruz' Fox segment did not, his YouTube-broadcast "response" video did make a reference to President Obama's "executive amnesty."

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