When you’re a Republican running for governor of California and you come upon the explosive subject of illegal immigration, the trick is to not win the battle but lose the war.
In reality, governors can’t do much about illegal immigration, and they shouldn’t grandstand while trying to prove otherwise. Controlling the border is a federal responsibility, and courts frown on attempts by local or state government to usurp that authority.
Republicans have been slow to learn that lesson, in part because they get political mileage from the issue.
The story always starts the same way. Republican candidates beat their chests and ratchet up the rhetoric to show everyone how tough they are on illegal immigration — and, in the case of those calling for a total moratorium, immigration in general. They might even win a closed primary by playing to the GOP base.
And it always ends the same way. Red meat only gets you so far in a blue state where 1 in 5 voters is Latino. Those chest-thumping, tough-talking Republicans tend to get crushed in the general election. After all, they’ve antagonized Latinos who resent politicians who milk the immigration issue for votes.
Blame it on former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who successfully piggybacked his floundering 1994 reelection campaign on Proposition 187. That needlessly punitive ballot initiative sought to deny education and other services to illegal immigrants and their children. A majority of California voters approved the measure, but a federal judge struck it down.
Today, those Republicans who win statewide elections in California do so because, in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they have moderate views that help court voters.
This year, however, the Republican candidates seeking to replace Schwarzenegger — former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner — are courting disaster by returning to the Wilsonian tactics of exploiting fear, stirring emotions, and fostering division.
Trailing Whitman by as much as 40 points in some polls, Poizner is obviously desperate. It shows. In recent weeks, he has grasped for the issue of illegal immigration like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver. At the state GOP convention, Poizner called for the elimination of all state-provided services for illegal immigrants and promised to lobby for changes in federal law so that schools can turn away children who are undocumented — something barred by the Supreme Court in its Plyler v. Doe decision.