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Has Wilson Outfoxed Himself on Immigration? : Campaign: He may have moved so far to the right on the issue that he has given his Democratic opponents a lot of room to maneuver in.

September 05, 1993|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School.

Could it be that Pete Wilson's hard-line stance on immigration will prove to be too clever by half?

The press and pundits have de clared illegal immigration the hot- button issue of the November, 1994, elections--particularly in California. It's probably safer to say that illegal immigration will remain a loud issue. But will it sway voters?

Wilson's abysmal job-approval ratings moved up around the time he called for an end to government services for illegal immigrants and a denial of U.S. citizenship to their U.S.-born children. The ratings of Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer also went up following their uncharacteristically tough advice on how to curb the flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border.

But linking a rise in polls to strong rhetoric on immigration is simplistic. Getting something accomplished--like passing a budget on time, with little visible bloodshed--helped Wilson's ratings. And avoiding controversial actions boosted the standing of both senators.

Nonetheless, illegal immigration is widely perceived to be a cutting issue. And, in politics, perception has a way of becoming reality. That's where Wilson may have tripped himself up. And that's where Democrats may have gotten a break.

Wilson's hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigrants may give Republican conservatives something to rally around, as they rallied around reapportionment three years ago. GOP unity allowed Wilson an easy romp through the gubernatorial primary. That short-lived truce contributed to Wilson's narrow victory over Feinstein in the November election.

Co-opting the right on immigration might again pre-empt a serious primary challenge to Wilson. And, once more, he could hoard his money and resources for what is shaping up as a hard-fought general election campaign. But can Wilson rely on that strategy to help him in the general election?

His anti-immigration proposals have placed a potential grenade at Democrats' feet. From Bill Clinton on down, Democrats face a delicate balancing act. How can they come down hard on illegal immigration without alienating the party's minority constituencies?

But the governor may have moved so far to the right on immigration that he has given his possible Democratic opponents--and almost any other Democratic candidate who needs to stake out a position on the issue--a lot of room in which to maneuver. Pulling Democrats to the right means moving them toward the political center. And that's where general elections are won in California.

Consider the early maneuvering of state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, a likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. Brown beat Wilson onto national television when she demanded that Clinton link the North America Free Trade Agreement to a side agreement to ship undocumented immigrants serving time in U.S. jails back to their country of origin. Brown's proposal positions her as tough on crime and law enforcement, issues on which Democrats and women candidates, in particular, have been vulnerable.

That's a neat general-election strategy, calculated to appeal to moderate-to-conservative whites. It could also have interesting ramifications in the Democratic primary. The party's constituencies--labor, Latinos, liberals, moderates--are divided over what to do, if anything, about immigration. And the Democratic debate over the issue has got caught up in the intraparty NAFTA fight.

Calls, like Brown's, for side agreements put NAFTA at risk. But labor and environmentalists, two important Democratic primary constituencies, might not mind that. They remain skeptical of--if not opposed to--the free-trade agreement.

Brown's likely primary opponent, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, has only recently weighed in on illegal immigration, joining other Democrats in support of stepped-up enforcement of current laws against hiring illegal immigrants. But Brown and Garamendi are on opposite sides of NAFTA, which may result in a divisive primary, with costly consequences in the general election.

How the immigration issue moves "the Latino vote" is also a subject of much discussion. Latino voters have been more up for grabs than blacks in recent California elections. A Republican who can attract 40% of the Latino electorate, as did Richard Riordan, can do serious damage to a Democratic candidate. Has Wilson forfeited that opportunity with his immigration views?

The Latino community is not an electoral monolith. Latino politicians have been split, or silent, on illegal immigration, reflecting their diverse constituencies. Both parties face challenges.

Polls show that Latinos share with other Californians concerns over illegal immigration. But, despite Wilson's denial of racist motivations, Latinos don't like the xenophobic intimations of the governor's proposals. That could hurt Wilson in the general election.

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