SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson's political pratfall took place so early in 1996 that it has been nearly forgotten amid the shambles of a Republican campaign that saw Bob Dole routed by President Clinton and also saw the GOP lose control of the California Legislature to the Democrats.
But Wilson's failure to keep a credible national campaign going beyond last February's New Hampshire primary must be remembered by Republican activists if the GOP is to have any hopes of regaining the White House after Clinton's second term ends. It can even be argued that Wilson has become a drag on the future of the GOP in California, having done as methodical a job as any Democratic double agent could have of undermining the party in this state.
Wilson has systematically alienated the future voters who, any demographer could tell him, will be a key segment of the state's electorate in every election into the middle of the next century: Mexican Americans and other Latinos. He began this disastrous slide in 1994, lending the aura of his office to the campaign on behalf of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative that is still bottled up in the courts.
The governor enhanced his anti-Latino credentials this year, convincing Dole to try some desperate immigrant-bashing of his own toward the end of a losing campaign. To no one's surprise, Wilson joined in with an almost perverse relish.
Even as persistent a Wilson critic as yours truly has been surprised at how consistently and enthusiastically Wilson has played the anti-immigrant card. I once thought it was purely a strategic move. The Californians who are the most consistent GOP voters tend to be white and older, so I figured Wilson was playing to their fears. But I've come to the conclusion that Wilson actually believes his own rhetoric.
This happened after reading about a conversation between two of California's smartest political veterans: The Times' statehouse columnist George Skelton and Stuart Spencer, the most successful political consultant this state has ever produced.
As quoted in Skelton's column last week, Spencer said Wilson bashes Mexicans and Mexico less because he thinks it's good politics than because "He just got to the point where he really believes it."
Spencer then introduced Skelton to a handful of Latino GOP activists who talked about how disheartening it is to try to be loyal to a party that consistently demeans and attacks your own people. I know some of the Latinos Skelton quoted and it tells me a lot that they are now willing to say publicly what they have been saying privately for years.
Even more telling is Spencer's willingness to say it openly. For no Republican political operative in this state has done more for the GOP than Spencer. Just consider the roster of California Republicans he has helped elect: Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Richard M. Nixon.
Significantly, every one of those GOP winners reached out to Latinos in his campaign and appointments--thanks, again, in no small part to advice from Stu Spencer. This is a man whose views on Pete Wilson bears listening to, especially by the many Republicans who discount the barbs of gadflies like me.
The intriguing thing about this is why Spencer and his Latino friends are so willing to be up front about their distaste for Wilson. I suspect it's because there are still Wilson loyalists in this city who think that the governor has a future in national politics. They must think that he can mount another campaign for the White House now that the lackluster performance of Dole and, surprisingly, his running mate Jack Kemp has left the GOP presidential sweepstakes for 2000 wide open. They forget how disastrous Wilson's short-lived 1996 campaign was.
The warnings of Spencer and other GOP loyalists must be heeded. But it would also help if Latinos who believe in the GOP get over their malaise as quickly as possible and started pushing the candidacy of Republicans who realize the future of their party must be painted in colors other than lily-white. Candidates like Kemp, Texas Gov. George Bush Jr. or retired Gen. Colin Powell, whose notably pro-immigrant speech to the GOP convention was the single most courageous act of an otherwise lackluster 1996 presidential campaign.
As for Pete Wilson, public criticism from a genuine GOP guru like Spencer confirms that I've been right about him all along. He's one of those leaders who will be remembered much more for the damage they've done than for anything good. Such a malevolent little man doesn't deserve to be governor of California, much less president of the United States.