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PETER H. KING

The Curtain Pulled Back, For a Moment

September 11, 1996|PETER H. KING

Every so often the wizards of politics will slip. They will get clumsy or cocky or just plain unlucky and let the curtain flap open just long enough for the audience to see their magic for the sham that it is. One such moment occurred last Friday.

Sixty or so California business executives, most of them Republican stalwarts, received an invitation to participate in a "confidential" teleconference with Gov. Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The topic was Proposition 209, the ballot initiative that would eliminate public-sector affirmative action programs.

Somehow, an invitation fell into the hands of an editor at the Los Angeles Daily News. It was passed along to reporter Rick Orlov. At the appointed hour, Orlov simply dialed the 800 number, identified himself and then waited for Wilson, Gingrich and the CEOs to come on line.

What followed was a pitch by Wilson and Gingrich that sounded nothing like the rhetoric typically unfurled by proponents of Proposition 209. There was no selective quoting of Martin Luther King Jr., no fancy talk of a bipartisan campaign to create "a colorblind society" and cure racism "on the natural." They did not lecture on the downsides of developing a diverse work force. No, they had come to ask for money and so--if only out of respect for the buying power of the audience--they cut right to the nitty gritty about Proposition 209.

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In the 20-minute, one-way teleconference--as reported by Orlov, a version, it should be noted, that has not been contested by the Wilson camp--the governor and Gingrich provided a short course on the charms of wedge politics. "It's become a partisan issue," Wilson said of Proposition 209, " . . . that works strongly to our advantage."

Wilson reminded the CEOs--and one reporter--of Proposition 187, the immigration initiative he rode so well to reelection. Proposition 209, he said, "has every bit the potential to make a critical difference in the race for [Dole] and House members. There is a real analogy between the experience two years ago in 1994 when I was seeking reelection and Proposition 187 was on the ballot."

California business leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, have been reluctant to contribute to the Proposition 209 campaign. Wilson's implicit point was that they were looking at it all wrong. It was not necessary for them to ponder the merits of affirmative action. Rather, they should regard the initiative simply as a GOP tool to drag down Bill Clinton, indirectly throw money Bob Dole's way, and help elect Republicans up and down the ticket.

"From my vantage point," Gingrich said, "the California Civil Rights Initiative is vital because we have to be competitive in California to keep control of the House. We could have a swing from plus-three to minus-four, just in California. If [Proposition 209] is still ahead by a dramatic margin [late in the campaign], Clinton has to take his time and money out of the Midwest to put in California. He can't win the presidency without winning California. I think this is as important as any single resource in the campaign."

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Now the only thing shocking about all this is its utter nakedness, the absence of any semantical coyness. In truth, California's proposition process lost its virtue a long time ago. Both parties now routinely plant initiatives on the ballot--to drive wedges through the populace, coax blocs of friendly voters to the polls, tie up special interest money that might otherwise be spent on opponents' campaigns, force adversaries to take unpopular public positions, and so on.

Wilson did not invent the con, but he's the current master. And when--through a crony, Ward Connerly--he pretty much took over the initiative late last December, it was widely assumed that the governor saw affirmative action as a new horse that would carry him to the White House. Son of Immigration, if you will. How cynical, Wilson would sniff when asked about this.

Why no, he would go on, remarkably straight-faced, he had not abruptly abandoned his longtime support of affirmative action to gain political advantage. It was, harumph and glory be, truly a matter of conscience and ideals, a play to "fairness."

In this Wilson merely echoed others who have stood behind the curtain and made the case that their wedge propositions truly were about "toxic waste" or "the right to work" or "fair housing." At least that is how they told it to us Schmoes, a.k.a. the general public. The reality--that these propositions often are simply devices meant to elect politicians--the wizards reserve only for the inside people, the ones with ready checkbooks. Those who would point this out they call cynics.

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