Pete Wilson’s War

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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We probably all agree that a growing Hispanics population poses a significant challenge for conservatives. The question, though, is whether this is a problem of our choosing. Do Republicans want to limit Hispanic immigration because Hispanics are natural liberals? Or are Hispanics natural liberals because Republicans want to limit immigration? In essence, the question is this: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

I’ve seen plenty of evidence to back up either hypothesis. But it’s hard to deny that we are in the midst of a dangerous feedback loop: The more we demagogue immigration, the more reason we have to demagogue immigration. 

In the long-run, though, we are the ones most likely to suffer. If one accepts the fact that white birth rates are not keeping pace, and that changing demographics are (to some extent) inevitable, then we are left with a question of whether or not it is smart politics to intentionally antagonize people who might otherwise be allies in the conservative cause. And make no mistake, that is exactly what we have decided to do. With our rhetoric, we are very literally driving minority groups into the ranks of liberals. (Note: Conservatives could still choose to support tough policies that secure the border without engaging in the kinds of policies and rhetoric that drive Hispanics away from the GOP.)

It’s not like we haven’t seen this story played out at the state level before. Noting the similarity between Donald Trump’s recent campaign ad (which actually featured footage of Morocco) and almost identical ads run in the 1990s by moderate Republican governor Pete Wilson, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley recalls how Wilson’s hard-line stance on immigration cost Republicans in California.

After pushing Proposition 187, Riley reminds us, the Golden State became a permanent blue state:

Mr. Wilson’s support among Hispanics was 47% in 1990. Four years later it was 25%, and ethnic voting patterns would run against Republicans for another decade. The party lost state assembly seats for three successive elections. Mr. Wilson’s would-be GOP successor, Dan Lungren, carried only 17% of the Hispanic vote just eight years after Mr. Wilson had won close to half of it.

Mr. Riley notes that George W. Bush denounced prop 187 and, as recently as 2004, garnered 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his presidential re-election bid.

But you don’t have to go back a dozen years to see how Texas Republicans’ response to Hispanic immigration in the 1990s paid of compared to California’s: As recently as 2014, U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, won the Hispanic vote in Texas.

So why then is Donald Trump (and let’s be honest, most of the Republicans running for president—even one from Texas) modeling his presidential campaign on Pete Wilson’s disastrous strategy in California, instead of looking to Texas? The answer can be found in Mr. Riley’s second paragraph. Like Trump, Wilson was “another Republican moderate with presidential ambitions who became an immigration hard-liner out of political expediency.”

Like many of the problems detailed in my forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail, this is a “tragedy of the commons” problem. It is in the best interest of individual Republican candidates to do and say things that collectively hurt the GOP and the conservative movement. And so, they do.

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Matt K. Lewis