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Romney’s Last Chance: The Pete Wilson Option
With less than seven weeks to go, President Obama still seems to be holding a small but decisive lead in the presidential race—some 2.7% according to Real Clear Politics’ average of the polls on the morning of September 19. And, even more alarming for the GOP: Obama's near-landslide lead in the Electoral College map, which Real Clear Politics puts at 332-206 for Obama. (RealClearPolitics—2012 Election Maps—Electoral Map No Toss Ups)
It is now clear that the Romney-Ryan strategy of ignoring social issues and campaigning solely on the bad economy is a failure. One recent poll even put the hapless Republican ticket at zero percent among blacks. [Poll: 0 percent of blacks for Mitt Romney, By Mackenzie Weinger, Politico.com, August 22, 2012]
The Obama economic record is indeed poor and the bad news keeps coming: unemployment over 8 percent for 43 straight months, the deficit has reached over 16 trillion, labor force participation is at a 30-year low and $4 gas is here yet again. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s September 13 announcement of a massive new money-printing program (“QE 3”), obviously risking inflation, is an outright admission of failure (which Romney, curiously, has failed to exploit).
So why aren't independents, working class voters (the old Reagan Democrats from battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan) and others flocking to the Republicans? Perhaps it is because elections are not decided solely on tax and budget issues.
According to a recent Zogby poll, Romney leads Obama among whites by a 52-38 percent margin. But he is actually losing self-identified NASCAR fans (mostly working class whites) by 1 percentage point (44-43 percent). “That’s a number you would never expect to see,” commented pollster John Zogby. [Zogby: Romney Running Worse Than McCain in ‘08, By David A. Patten, Newsmax.com, September 17, 2012]
Because he is not getting the support of these Reagan Democrats, Romney is actually doing worse among whites than John McCain in 2008!
But all is not lost for the GOP—if it has the courage to rally its white base.
Pete Wilson was known as a moderate Republican for most of his career, much like Mitt Romney. As mayor of San Diego and U.S. Senator, Wilson was solidly pro-choice on abortion and tended to ignore social issues. He was best known for supporting tax cuts and balanced budgets (as governor he left California with an impressive $16 billion budget surplus).
Wilson won his first term as California governor in 1990, narrowly defeating Jerry Brown. But early polls showed Wilson facing a 20-point deficit in his bid for reelection in 1994. Around this time, California's Proposition 187, which would have denied most welfare benefits to illegal aliens, was being debated.
The Republican and much of the Conservatism Inc. establishment—notably Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett—joined with the liberals in condemning Prop 187. But Wilson showed true courage in standing up for the citizens of his own state. Despite savage attacks, Wilson became the public face of Prop 187. He was rewarded for his leadership by routing his Democrat opponent, Kathleen Brown, by a 55 to 40 percent margin. He even received 20 percent of the black vote that year—a number that Republican trucklers like McCain and Romney could never dream of reaching.
Wilson would face a similar round of abuse in 1996 when he defended Prop 209, which outlawed racial quotas in California.
These stands made Wilson so popular that he launched a brief bid for the presidency in 1996. But because of throat surgery, he was unable to campaign, or even speak, for a month. His short-lived candidacy never recovered.
It is worth considering what could have happened if Wilson—a socially moderate Republican—had been the public face of opposition to quotas and immigration. Pat Buchanan wound up getting most of the anti-quota and patriotic immigration reform vote in 1996. Unfortunately, Buchanan put these issues on the backburner for most of his campaign to focus on things like free trade, foreign policy and abortion.
Unlike 1994, there are no immigration or Affirmative Action propositions on the ballot that Romney could endorse. Anti-quota and pro-immigration enforcement initiatives are extremely popular and usually pass overwhelmingly. For example, Prop 187 passed in liberal California with 59 percent of vote (63 percent of the white vote). Prop 200 passed in Arizona with 55 percent of the vote (59 percent of the white vote). In 2006, Ward Connerly’s Michigan Civil Rights Initiative passed 58% to 42%, with up to 64 percent of the white vote. A pro-affirmative action site claimed that exit polls showed the “ majority of votes coming from white male conservatives.”
Immigration enforcement remains a very popular issue. Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer used her support of SB 1070 to cruise to victory in 2010 by a 55-42 percent margin. Before SB 1070, she was behind in the polls—just like Pete Wilson.
Unfortunately, Romney has limited his options with his recent pandering before a group of Hispanic business owners. Addressing the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on September 17, Romney said, “One million immigrants legally enter America every year—the largest number of any country in the world. I like that," [Romney tells Hispanics he’ll fix the economy and immigration, By Holly Bailey, Yahoo! News, The Ticket, September 17, 2012]
But Romney could still bring up “National Question” issues like Affirmative Action and bilingual education in the debates next month. (Ironically, his opportunistic support for an anti-bilingual education initiative helped elect him Governor of Massachusetts in 2002—a hopeful parallel to Pete Wilson). Romney could still emphasize law enforcement against illegal immigration, maybe by actually mentioning his own party’s quite good platform planks on the issue. He could still denounce Obama’s lawless Administrative Amnesty—and he could announce he that will reverse it, which (incredibly) he has not yet done. He could still bring up ending birthright citizenship, which flared briefly before the 2010 election, getting support from surprising sources like Senator Lindsey Graham, before being suppressed (like all other National Question legislation) by the new Chamber of Commerce-whipped House GOP majority.
And Romney could start slipping these issues into his campaign speeches. The Main Stream Media, which actually believes its Hispanic Hype propaganda or at any rate demands that everyone pay lip-service to it, would have hysterics—which would be very helpful. As the furor over the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1988 Presidential race showed, the Left cannot restrain itself when its visceral issues are touched, even when the overwhelming majority of Americans are on the other side.
Given that this election is expected to be so close, the role of Third Parties becomes especially important. And there is one that does offer red meat on the National Question: The Constitution Party, which has mostly focused on ending abortion, but also has an excellent platform on immigration and quotas. In 2008, its presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin received almost 200,000 votes nationwide. In 2010, Tom Tancredo ran for governor of Colorado on the Constitution ticket and came in second with 37 percent of the vote.
This year, the Constitution Party presidential candidate is former Virginia GOP Congressman Virgil Goode. He is making immigration reform his key issue, actually calling for reduced legal immigration in addition to stopping illegal immigration. Goode also distinguishes himself from Romney and Obama by promising to make English the official language of the United States. (This is actually in the GOP platform, but Goode actually means it)
This stance is working. A July poll had Goode at 9 percent in the swing state (thanks to recent immigration into the DC suburbs) of Virginia. A good deal of this support is probably from Goode’s former constituents in Virginia’s conservative 5th district. Can Romney win Virginia without these votes? [Virginia’s Virgil Goode: Could this Man Cost Mitt Romney the Presidency? By Elizabeth Dias, Time, August 1, 2012]
The Constitution Party is already on the ballot in 25 states including key swing states of Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin. It is still working on getting on the ballot in other states and will run write-in campaigns in states where it is left off.
Even losing one or two percent to Goode is potentially fatal to the GOP.
(Similarly, the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in 47 states. The party is generally pro-immigration but could be a home for disaffected Ron Paul voters—something that Romney’s consultants might have thought of before treating Paul with such contempt at the convention)..
In a 1997 National Review cover story, PDF, Peter Brimelow and Ed Rubenstein warned Republicans about the possibility of third party challenges if the GOP continued to ignore immigration. If Goode turns out to be the Republican Party’s Ralph Nader, it will only have itself to blame.
Pete Wilson showed that standing up for the interests of your base wins elections. A strong stance on National Question issues will win over the Reagan Democrats and stop conservatives from staying home (again) or from voting for the Constitution Party.
If Mitt Romney does not have the courage and brains to follow the example of Pete Wilson, he should start preparing his concession speech.
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Peter Bradley (email him) writes from Washington D.C.