If Pete Wilson's presidential campaign had any momentum, the ruckus over his hiring--and not paying Social Security taxes for--a housekeeper who was here illegally could stall it. But there's not much momentum to stall.
This is not to say Wilson's problems are merely a tempest in a political teapot. Remember what happened to Mike Huffington's U.S. Senate bid when he was hit with charges of hiring an illegal immigrant? His momentum stopped dead, and he lost the election by a hair's breadth.
Is Wilson headed for a similar rendezvous with political fate?
The Huffingtons--or rather, insisted the candidate, his wife--hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny \o7 after\f7 a federal law outlawing such hiring was in place; they were tardy in paying their employment taxes. The Wilsons--or as the governor insists, his then-wife--hired an illegal-immigrant maid 17 years ago\o7 . \f7 That was before the federal law went into effect (although it would have been a violation of California law if Wilson knew of her status at the time). The Wilsons did not pay employment taxes. Politically, it was Huffington who broke the wrong law.
The timing was bad for Huffington, too. He was in a sprint. The charges broke just when he needed to accelerate across the finish line.
Although the '96 presidential campaign feels like it's hurtling at warp speed already, Wilson's race is more of a marathon than a sprint. And he has stumbled early enough to take steps to right himself.
Furthermore, in a quirk of political luck, Wilson virtually has no voice, because of throat surgery, to respond to the charges. Unfortunately for Huffington, he could talk.
But there are factors not so personal. The political terrain is different now than it was in 1994. Huffington's electoral battlefield was California, where illegal immigration was the hot-button issue. Barely six months later, Californians, and the nation, have moved on to other issues--terrorism, affirmative action.
Furthermore, Wilson, because he is seeking national office, is striving to appeal to Republican primary voters in many states who do not share Californians' concerns about immigration. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, for example, fret about Wilson's $7-billion tax increase and his pro- abortion rights stance, which weaken his conservative credentials.
Where the illegal-immigrant charge threatens to hurt Wilson is on the issues of credibility and hypocrisy. Because he so firmly and unrelentingly embraced the anti-immigrant cause--indeed, rode it to national fame--his actions surrounding the circumstances of hiring one is all the more important. The Democrats are banking that voters will punish Wilson for getting caught "with his dirty little secret."
But if you're a Republican presidential hopeful, getting attacked by liberal Democrats--like state Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press and Sen. Barbara Boxer--isn't all that damaging. Yet, you don't want your party joining the chorus. Wilson's primary opponents, for example, can now add immigration to the governor's list of Wilson's flip-flops--and that could hurt. A recent cover of the National Review showed a big-eared Wilson perched atop a weather vane, finger pointing in the wind; the article attacked him for "his gymnastics on a range of sensitive issues."
Worse, until now, Wilson has been little known outside of California. For most voters in Iowa, or almost anywhere else, the flare-up over the illegal hiring is their introduction to him. As GOP pollster Edward A. Goeas put it, "This isn't the best way to make a first impression."
Clearly, the revelations of the past few days, and the furor surrounding them, cannot help Wilson as he attempts to position himself for a formal White House run. How much they will harm him--and whether any harm will be permanent--will depend on how he handles the problem, how effectively his opponents exploit it, how long and intensely the media focuses on it and--ultimately--how Republican primary voters respond to all this.
If Wilson were just another second-tier candidate whose campaign had hit a nasty bump, the political media would be quick to write his political obituary. But the pundits and pros know Wilson's reputation as a tough and feisty underdog. They've written his political obituary too hastily before. And they're a little chary of doing it again.
It's instructive to recall that Wilson was the young advance man who chauffeured Richard M. Nixon into supposed political oblivion after Nixon's bizarre, self-styled "last press conference," triggered by his defeat in the 1962 California governor's race. No politician has reinvented himself so successfully as Nixon; and comparisons between the former President and Wilson have found their way into print before.
Those who have observed Wilson wiggle out of tough political spots before, and deftly shed unpopular positions, may find themselves speculating whether it's indeed possible for Wilson to persuade GOP primary voters that his failure to pay the Social Security levies for his maid was just one more piece of evidence that shows how really committed he is to cutting taxes.