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The Recall's Tarnish

September 05, 2003

The recall campaign's corrupting influence on forthright public policy discussion continues. Never was that more evident in Wednesday's debate than when it turned to the causes and effects of illegal immigration. Gov. Gray Davis and five candidates for governor -- minus the Big One, who decided to duck it -- turned themselves into virtual pretzels to pander to constituencies whose votes they crave.

All elections lead to some political pandering. But this recall, with its short time frame and kill-or-be-killed stakes, only worsens the compulsion of politicians to give simple-minded answers to complex problems.

Davis, after once raising common-sense concerns about the wisdom in a post-9/11 world of granting driver's licenses to people here illegally, has jettisoned his legitimate questions. A pending bill is right in its assumption that all drivers should be tested and licensed. But the current version of the legislation still fails to ensure that the state doesn't make it easier for criminals or terrorists here illegally to get California identification. But no matter now. Davis is battling for his political life because of the ill-considered recall. He says he will sign the flawed bill. He'll do so because Latino political leaders want it, and with the recall pending he can't afford to alienate them.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, asked whether there were any services he would deny to illegal immigrants, didn't answer specifically. Bustamante is no wild-eyed radical, as critics claim. He's a dyed-in-the-wool moderate Central Valley Democrat who previously would have had no problem distinguishing between providing emergency services and education to children and offering nonessential benefits. But he had no incentive to tackle a tough question during the debate. Why risk offending supporters who want to discuss only the benefits -- never the costs -- of illegal immigration? The recall against Davis that could wind up making Bustamante governor is, after all, only a month away.

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) was of course all too happy to talk about the negative consequences of illegal immigration. That's because many of his base supporters pine for the "good ol' days" of a shining California in which everything worked. The fact is, it did not work for everyone -- not for many Latinos, or African and Asian Americans. But rather than discuss how and why illegal immigration swelled in California and how employer and consumer demands played into that, it's so much easier to just say what the state needs is another "throw-them-out" Proposition 187. Because what McClintock needs is for the right wing to come out and support him next month.

As for Californians who think the immigration issue is a bit more complicated than the two extremes suggest? Well, too bad.

The cycle of recall politics must end Oct. 7. If you think that politicians have a natural gene for pandering, you ain't seen nothing yet.

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