The Democrats’ Inexcusable Ignorance on Mexico

And the political press that allows it.

Amy Klobuchar purses her lips.
Amy Klobuchar in Las Vegas on Thursday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, after a candidate forum in Las Vegas, Telemundo reporter Guadalupe Venegas sat down with three democratic presidential hopefuls: Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Pete Buttigieg. Most reporters who cover presidential politics tend to stick to questions that closely follow the campaign’s usual agenda: health care, the economy, etc. Venegas was smart enough to choose a different route. He asked about Mexico.

The question itself—“Who is the president of Mexico?”—made sense: The Nevada caucus is Saturday, and 78 percent of the state’s roughly 800,000 Hispanics are of Mexican origin.

The candidates, however, were ill-prepared. And that’s putting it mildly.

Steyer couldn’t remember Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president since late 2018. “I forget,” Steyer acknowledged. That Steyer, a billionaire who has never held elected office, could not recall the name of a foreign leader might be forgivable, but Amy Klobuchar, a sitting U.S. Senator, is another matter. “I’m sorry to ask this,” Venegas told Klobuchar. “But do you know who he is?” Klobuchar hesitated, looked to her right (perhaps in search of a lifeline), and tried to respond. “I know that he is the Mexican president,” she said, awkwardly. Venegas would not relent. “But would you tell me his name?” he followed up. Klobuchar was forced to admit that she couldn’t, even though she had recently voted for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade treaty Mexico’s president had lobbied for. Pete Buttigieg fared better, sweating through the correct answer. “President López Obrador, I hope,” he said, blushing slightly.

Video of Klobuchar’s exchange with Venegas went viral. Some of my colleagues in the political press seemed surprised at her inability to answer this simple question. But I wasn’t. I’ve seen American politicians stumped by what should be essential knowledge of Latin America as a whole and Mexico in particular. Four years ago, I interviewed Bernie Sanders in Los Angeles. Like Venegas, I tried to focus my questions on Latin America, specifically the crisis of the region’s leftist regimes, including in Venezuela and Argentina. Sanders would have none of it. “I’m running for president of the United States. I have an opinion, but I am focused on my campaign,” he told me. He hasn’t changed much since then. Just last week, Sanders tried to explain his support for former Bolivian President Evo Morales. When Chuck Todd tried to follow up, Sanders attempted a pivot. “I don’t know that everybody is interested in Ecuador,” Sanders said, mistaking Bolivia for Ecuador.

This extraordinary ignorance about a region—and a country, Mexico—of undeniable, objective importance for the United States is inexcusable. Think of Mexico. After President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, it is now America’s largest trading partner. The country is, by far, the top travel destination for American tourists abroad: More than 30 million Americans visit Mexico every year. There is, of course, another side of the coin. The country’s cartels play a crucial role in the opioid epidemic in America, as well as other, equally harmful drug trafficking operations. Add to that the rising toll of the refugee crisis in Mexico and other scourges like human smuggling, and Mexico becomes a clear source of concern for the United States. The fact that Mexico could argue much the same thing of its neighbor to the north, whose lax gun control laws provide hundreds of thousands of weapons of war to those same criminal organizations, only makes the relationship more complex and relevant, even urgent.

Whose fault is it, then, that these candidates running for the highest office in the land know so little? The politicians themselves are to blame, of course. But American journalists have also played a role. Consider the eight debates held so far among the Democratic candidates. Apart from some stellar questioning by my Latino colleague Jorge Ramos and José Díaz-Balart, none of the debate moderators have shown any interest in asking the candidates about Mexico or Latin America, especially in contexts other than immigration. Moderators have asked about North Korea, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, and China. But not Mexico. This is as unfathomable and embarrassing as Klobuchar’s and Steyer’s obliviousness.

Now more than ever, the relationship between the United States and Mexico deserves to be discussed. After all, it took Trump less than two minutes to begin bashing Mexico and its citizens when he first declared his candidacy for presidency, half a decade ago. He hasn’t stopped since. What have voters of Mexican origin, who make up the majority of the country’s growing Hispanic electorate, heard from the Democratic Party in response? Either nothing or empty platitudes, sometimes delivered in Spanish for the optics. No wonder, then, that those same voters have turned out to vote in such dismal numbers over the years.

The Democrats need to address their issues ahora mismo. Wednesday’s debate might be a good place to start. Nevada’s large Mexican American community will surely be listening. Other far larger Hispanic electorates in states like the solidly Democratic California or Texas, which the Democrats hope to keep turning blue, will be as well.