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Clinton Plays the Race Card in California : Having jumped on the illegal immigration bandwagon, he still disparages his fellow passengers.

June 23, 1996|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and a political analyst at KGO Radio in San Francisco

About a week and a half ago, President Clinton came to Southern California. He was here only for a day or two. But before he left, he took the time to call me a racist.

Like all Americans, Californians have been outraged by the recent spate of burnings of black churches across the South. And so it was entirely appropriate for Clinton to use his campaign appearance in San Diego to speak to that outrage. But it was inappropriate for the president to use the backdrop of the California-Mexico border to imply that opponents of illegal immigration are guilty of the same racist sentiments as arsonists who have been bombing these churches.

For Californians who have gotten tired of seeing billions of tax dollars spent on providing services to people who come to this country illegally, this argument is both offensive and insulting. We know that cracking down on illegal immigration has nothing to do with an individual's race, ethnicity or country of origin, but only with whether they entered the United States through legal or illegal means. And while we deplore the tragedy of a church being torched, we resent being lumped together with the kind of hatemongers who would perform such an act.

So under most circumstances, Clinton's remarks could have been dismissed as just another candidate playing the race card. On one level, he was just one more in a string of politicians telling Californians that we are bigots for wanting our state's legal residents to have first call on our tax dollars. And most Californians, smart enough to recognize campaign race-baiting when they hear it, would have shaken their heads and gone on with their lives.

But merely tying together these two unrelated stories was not enough for Clinton. What made his remarks truly astounding in their audacity was that they were delivered at the tail end of a speech in which he was taking credit for his own efforts against illegal immigration.

So if you took Clinton's remarks literally, he seemed to be saying that some anti-illegal immigration sentiments were racist, but that his own were not. Which means that Clinton, somehow, was trying to take the moral high ground against his own position, an act of political gymnastics that was at once disingenuous, sanctimonious and demagogic.

In his address, the president essentially made four points to the people of California. First, he told them that racism is bad. (No argument.) Second, that the racism behind the church bombings is bad. (Again, no argument.) Third, that this same racism is responsible for anti-illegal immigration sentiments. (Absurd, but standard liberal posturing.) And finally, that his own efforts to crack down on illegal immigration deserve praise. (So remarkably hypocritical and duplicitous at so many different levels that it would be impossible to detail them in this limited space.)

Delineating a difference between his own motivations for taking on the illegal immigration issue and the less laudable motivations of others is an especially difficult proposition for a president who has so resolutely straddled the issue since its emergence on the political landscape. Since taking office, Clinton has juggled conflicting constituencies and ideologies, talking tough about keeping illegal immigrants out while simultaneously defending the rights of those same illegals to receive government-mandated services once they get here.

Clinton had the political instincts to leap aboard the illegal immigration bandwagon when it was pulling out of the station. Because he has displayed that same dexterity on issues ranging from tax cuts to welfare reform in an effort to repudiate his own record in office and claim the political middle ground for his reelection campaign, we should no longer be surprised at this sort of maneuvering.

But this one is different. Because even as Clinton extols his own record on fighting illegal immigration, he somehow manages to disparage the rest of us for harboring sentiments that he considers distasteful. And left unsaid is that it was those same sentiments and the political forces behind them that coerced him into action in the first place.

Two years ago, 60% of California's voters spoke out against illegal immigration by passing Proposition 187. None of us appreciates being called racist simply for wanting to see our borders protected and our laws enforced.

The debate over illegal immigration has been a long and difficult one for all Californians. And the scars will be long enough in healing without a president who feels compelled to pick at them for his own political benefit.

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