Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sparring in Spanish

A Spanish-language ad from Obama calls McCain a friend of Rush Limbaugh and says Limbaugh called Mexicans "stupid." A McCain ad in Spanish misrepresents Obama's role on immigration legislation.


An Obama TV ad tells Spanish-speaking viewers that McCain is "friends" with Rush Limbaugh, and quotes the radio host as calling Mexicans "stupid and unqualified" and telling them to "shut up or get out." The ad is doubly misleading. Limbaugh has until recently disparaged McCain repeatedly to his audience. And Limbaugh says his words are ripped out of context and twisted in the ad. In any case they don't represent McCain's position.
A McCain ad, in turn, blames "Obama and his Congressional allies" for blocking an immigration bill that McCain co-sponsored. But it was a Republican-led filibuster that sunk the bill in the Senate, and McCain said afterward that "A lot of the Republican base was passionate about the issue, and they made their influence felt.”


The Obama-Biden campaign's new Spanish-language TV ad says that "John McCain and his Republican friends" have insulted Mexicans and practiced "intolerance." The ad shows conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh calling Mexicans "stupid and unskilled," and exhorting illegal immigrants to "shut your mouth or get out."

[TET ]Obama-Biden Ad: "Two-Faced" (Translation)

Announcer: They want us to forget the insults we've endured.

Text on Screen: "…Mexicans stupid and unqualified." -Rush Limbaugh

Announcer: The intolerance! They made us feel marginalized in this country we love so much.

Text on Screen: "Shut up, or get out!" -Rush Limbaugh

Announcer: John McCain and his Republican friends have two faces. One of them lies to get our votes. And the other one's worse, following the failed politics of George Bush, putting the interests of powerful lobbies above those of working families. John McCain, more of the same Republican deception.[/TET]

No Friend of His

One problem: Limbaugh has been no friend of McCain and has attacked him repeatedly. He hounded McCain for his stance on immigration, among other issues. In January, Limbaugh said that a McCain nomination would "destroy the Republican party," and said he would vote for a Democrat over McCain. Limbaugh has attacked McCain specifically for being too friendly to illegal immigrants from Mexico, saying McCain "supports amnesty and open borders."

Only in recent weeks has Limbaugh swung to supporting McCain. Limbaugh and McCain "Republican friends"? Hardly. Yet this ad tries to hold McCain accountable for the words of one of his most vocal antagonists.

Rush to Judgment

Furthermore, Limbaugh says the ad takes his words out of context, and that he did not call all Mexicans "stupid."

In an opinion article in the Sept. 19 Wall Street Journal, he calls the ad's sound bites "a deception." He says the "stupid" quote comes from "a 1993 humorous monologue poking fun at the arguments against the North American Free Trade Agreement."

The actual words, according Limbaugh, are these:

Limbaugh, 1993: If you are unskilled and uneducated, your job is going south. Skilled workers, educated people are going to do fine 'cause those are the kinds of jobs Nafta is going to create. If we are going to start rewarding no skills and stupid people, I'm serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do — let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.

We'll leave it to readers to judge how humorous that might or might not be. But those words do fall short of calling all Mexicans "stupid and unskilled" as the ad says. Limbaugh says his point "which is obvious, was that the people who were criticizing Nafta [sic] were demeaning workers, particularly low-skilled workers."

Limbaugh defends the "shut up" quote in a similar way, saying he was satirizing Mexican immigration laws. We've checked the transcript on this one, and Limbaugh has a point. Here's the key part of what he actually said on his April 6, 2006 show. After proposing a long list of odious-sounding "Limbaugh laws" on immigration, he concluded:

Limbaugh, April 6, 2006: You're a foreigner. You shut your mouth or you get out, and if you come here illegally, you go straight to jail and we're going to hunt you down 'til we find you. I can imagine many of you think that the Limbaugh Laws are pretty harsh. I imagine today some of you probably are going, "Yeah! Yeah!" Well, let me tell you this, folks. Every one of the laws I just mentioned are actual laws of Mexico, today. I just read you Mexican immigration law.

We're not experts on Mexican law, so we can't say whether or not Limbaugh correctly described those provisions. But we know satire when we see it. The Obama-Biden ad misleads by suggesting that Limbaugh was hectoring Spanish-speakers to "shut up or get out" of the U.S.

Poison Pen

The McCain campaign also released a misleading ad to Spanish-speaking voters. This one stretches the truth by accusing Obama of throwing a wrench into the recent immigration bill.

[TET ]McCain Ad: "Whose Side Are They On?" (Translation)

Announcer: Obama and his Congressional allies say they are on the side of immigrants, but are they? The press reports that their efforts were poison pills that made immigration reform fail. The result: No guest worker program. No path to citizenship. No secure borders. No reform. Is that being on our side? Obama and his Congressional allies ready to block immigration reform, but not ready to lead.

McCain: I'm John McCain and I approve this message.[/TET]

McCain's ad blames "Obama and his Congressional allies" for the failure of the bill, but the truth is that it was a Republican-led filibuster that stymied it in the Senate and forced Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid to pull the bill from consideration. On the final cloture vote on June 7, 2007, not a single Republican supported cutting off debate and allowing a vote on the bill. (McCain was absent, but his vote would not have changed the outcome.)

McCain himself credited Republican opposition for the bill's demise. "I just think the opposition to it was very strong,” he told Congressional Quarterly Weekly in July of 2007. "A lot of the Republican base was passionate about the issue, and they made their influence felt.”

Lately, as he courts Spanish-speaking voters, McCain has attempted to shift blame to Obama by accusing him of supporting partisan "poison pill" amendments that scuttled a fragile compromise between bipartisan groups. The McCain campaign lists amendments that Obama supported and one that he sponsored. But earlier, while still contending for Repubican primary votes to secure the party's nomination, McCain said that he would not vote for his own immigration legislation if it came up again. At the Jan. 30 Republican candidate debate at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, California, he said:

Q: At this point, if your original proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor, would you vote for it?

McCain: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. So to say that that would come to the floor of the Senate, it won't.

So in Spanish or any other language, both these ads are spinning voters

–by Jess Henig


Kurtz, Howard. "Limbaugh on McCain: It's Better to Be Right All the Time." The Washington Post. 5 Feb. 2008.

Pfeiffer, Eric. "Once Opposed, Conservative Talk Radio Now Backs McCain." Congressional Quarterly Today. 4 Sep. 2008.

Limbaugh, Rush. "Obama is Stoking Racial Antagonism." The Wall Street Journal. 19 Sep. 2008.

Sandler, Michael. "Immigration Overhaul Stymied." CQ Weekly. 9 Jul. 2007. The New York Times. "Transcript: Republican Debate in Simi Valley, California." 30 Jan. 2008.