Many years ago, when hippies walked the streets and the Vietnam War was still an armed conflict rather than a metaphor, an ambitious young Republican named Pete Wilson was elected mayor of the sleepy little border town of San Diego. He quickly earned a reputation as a pro-business, can-do moderate, the type of politician the GOP regularly produced in the days before it was overrun by culture warriors and angry fundamentalists. Wilson was popular among Democrats and Republicans alike, and he soon set his sights on goals loftier than cutting ribbons and presenting trophies to surfing champions.
In 1978, Mayor Pete made a bid for the governorship of California, running in a primary election against a handful of men whose names have long since been forgotten. By the late 1970s, however, the Republican Party had drifted significantly rightward as Ronald Reagan approached his third—and ultimately successful—bid for the White House. The moderate mayor of San Diego was soundly defeated.
By the time he returned to statewide politics four years later, Pete Wilson was a Reagan Republican in good standing. He won a seat in the U.S. Senate, was re-elected six years later, and, in 1990, finally achieved election as California's chief executive. Governor Wilson was as partisan, confrontational, and doctrinaire as Mayor Wilson had been bipartisan, inclusive, and flexible.
As he approached his struggle for re-election in 1994, Wilson was understood to be in big trouble. The California economy, dangerously dependent on allocations from the U.S. Defense Department, had still not fully recovered from the end of the Cold War. Republicans were already paying the price; just two years earlier, the state had supported a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964. Wilson's tightfisted ways had alienated public employees, one of the largest voting blocs in the state. And his opponent in the general election would be the popular Secretary of State, Kathleen Brown, daughter of one former governor and sister of another.
Because of California's unfortunate system of direct democracy, demagoguing politicians often tie their fortunes to one or more of the ballot propositions that coincide with their own election bids. In 1994, a particularly mean-spirited initiative, Proposition 187, promised, if adopted, to deny illegal immigrants health care, education, and other vital services. Supporters, ignoring the racially insensitive implications of the slogan, referred to the measure as the "Save Our State" (SOS) initiative. Perhaps the most prominent of all Prop 187's backers was the embattled incumbent governor.
Being a border state, California had always seen its share of nativists and immigrant bashers. Pete Wilson, prior to his governorship, had never fit that description. Indeed, while a U.S. Senator, he had supported legislation granting amnesty to undocumented workers, even arguing in favor of extending the deadline for applications when it expired in 1988. Nevertheless, desperate to save his flagging candidacy, Wilson made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign.
And an ugly campaign it was. At one point, the Governor ran an advertisement featuring immigrants dashing across the San Diego-Tijuana border, the images grainy and foreboding. "They just keep coming," the announcer intoned. No longer were illegal immigrants our neighbors, gardeners, or housekeepers. Instead, they represented an invading force, attacking in waves, an army of parasites motivated by little more than a desire to drain the public coffers. They must be stopped!
In the end, Pete Wilson easily won re-election, after which he completed a second unremarkable and generally derided term as governor. His gamble, however, had paid off. To be sure, immigration was not the only factor determining his success at the polls (the economy was finally on the mend in 1994 and Kathleen Brown turned out to be a surprisingly inept candidate), but it had almost certainly contributed. Wilson had, as perhaps no other American politician since George Wallace, harnessed the white-hot fear and resentment of an uneasy populace and bent it to his will.
For the California Republican Party, Governor Wilson's re-election was the very definition of a pyrrhic victory. Socially conservative Latino voters, who might otherwise have been persuaded to support the GOP, recoiled at the insensitivity of the Wilson campaign and the suggestion that the Golden State needed to be "saved" from the brown hordes. The rawness of the appeal and the rhetorical excesses of many of Wilson's supporters also troubled suburban moderates, who came to see the Republicans as increasingly dogmatic and reactionary. Since 1994, and excepting Arnold Schwarzenegger's celebrity-driven success, the Democratic Party has come to dominate California politics to a degree that would have been unthinkable on the evening that Pete Wilson claimed his final political triumph.
The lesson for the 2008 presidential election should obvious. Immigration is the sort of visceral, short-term issue that sometimes moves voters to the polls in surprisingly large numbers. Indeed, the ferocity of opinion on this topic has stunned those whose journalistic beat normally extends between New York and Washington. John McCain ran into the immigration buzz saw and has yet to recover. Even in Iowa, a state far closer to Canada than to Mexico, illegal immigration is emerging as leading issue. Republicans, desperate for victory in a tight race, will almost certainly be tempted to play the immigrant card against the Democratic nominee next year.
But they do so at their own peril. Latinos are the fastest growing voting bloc in the United States. The dilemma faced by the GOP is that individual candidates, who have no reason to look beyond the next election, will consider Pete Wilson's strategy and see only that he was personally successful. That national party, on the other hand, has to worry about the long-term implications of alienating millions of Americans in vote-rich states.
The Democrats can only wait, with no small degree to trepidation, to see how this all plays out.