Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pot or Kettle? The California Conservative Nightmare

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's encounter with angry illegal immigration foes this week in La Mesa touched off a furor on the conservative talk radio circuit and blogosphere, creating renewed dissension on the Republican governor's right as he runs for re-election.

It was a day in which the governor at various times preached compassion toward illegal immigrants, regretted praising the Minuteman border watch group, admitted he made a mistake by voting for the Proposition 187 anti-illegal immigration ballot measure and expressed alarm about the “intensity of prejudice” he detected in some of the more strident illegal-immigration opponents.

“I think that the governor needs to come out with a very clear emphatic statement about his position on illegal immigration and not waver from it,” said Republican political consultant Karen Hanretty, who worked on the Schwarzenegger campaign in the 2003 recall election.

“There's a real problem shaping up for him which is people question what his core values are, or whether he even has core values. And that's not good just months away” from the election.

Schwarzenegger's instinct on most issues is to seek out the middle ground. On immigration, that's hard to find.

“There are few issues in California that inflame people as automatically as this does,” said Republican analyst Bill Whalen at the Hoover Institution. “People on the right say you want to coddle criminals. People on the left say you're a fascist. There's very little room in between.”

The Tuesday “town hall meeting” at Harry Griffen Park in La Mesa was a raucous sideshow to what was otherwise a good week politically for the governor.

Campaign finance reports showed Schwarzenegger with a $10 million financial advantage over his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, since the June primary election and that he has raised money more than twice as fast as his rival.

The Field Poll showed that Schwarzenegger has opened up a lead of 8 percentage points over Angelides and that Californians are more positive about the job the governor's doing and much more optimistic about the overall direction of the state than they were at the beginning of the year.

“We feel good. We think this puts us in a fairly optimistic position heading into a close election,” Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for the Schwarzenegger campaign said during a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We feel like this race is in a much different place than it was six months ago.”

Despite grumbling by conservatives about Schwarzenegger's generally moderate views, the statewide Field Poll released this week showed a solid 85 percent of Republicans favoring the governor's re-election. Angelides had solidified only 63 percent of the Democratic vote behind him.

Conservatives warn that Schwarzenegger should not misread the polls.

“The governor's people feel that since their opponent is Angelides, no matter what the governor believes, as long as he does a few things right, that all of us need to be 100 percent for him,” said Republican blogger Steve Frank, a longtime conservative activist.

“Just because we're supporting the governor and will vote for him, that doesn't mean we support his policies,” Frank said. “That's what the governor's people don't understand.”

During his event in La Mesa, Schwarzenegger fielded some harsh questions challenging his contention that a governor can do very little about illegal immigration.

Afterward, as his campaign bus proceeded to the next stop in Temecula, Schwarzenegger mused to reporters: “This really was first time I had seen the intensity of prejudice.”

“I had this woman come up to me and say, 'Stop the invasion,' ” he said. “It was that kind of dialogue. It was 'invasion' or 'robbing our country' or they want to take it back.”

Such comments began dominating the conservative talk radio echo chamber within hours.

The Web site of “The John and Ken Show” on Los Angeles radio station KFI carried this message: “Governor Schwarzenegger thinks you're prejudiced for wanting to stop the illegal alien invasion. Call him and tell him to stop dodging the issue!”

Schwarzenegger campaign manager Steve Schmidt called KFI talk show host John Zeigler to try to smooth things over. “He does not believe that people who are outraged about an out-of-control border are prejudiced,” Schmidt told Zeigler.

The following hour on the same show, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, raised the stakes by saying, “The governor said something he didn't mean and I'd like to see him come forward and say so.”

On the same day, an interview with the governor appeared in a Spanish-language newspaper in which Schwarzenegger said he had made a mistake by praising the Minuteman group last year and by voting for Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to cut off most public services to people in the country illegally but was largely struck down by the courts.

Although Schwarzenegger renounced his support for Proposition 187 in a 2002 speech and then again during the recall campaign a year later, it was not widely publicized.

“I think he's going to have some problems in November,” said Proposition 187 co-sponsor Ron Prince. “It's very difficult to go to one group and say one thing, go to another group and say another and go back to the first group and start the process over. People aren't that stupid.”

In La Mesa, Schwarzenegger outlined a comprehensive approach to immigration: Secure the border, create a guest-worker program and allow many undocumented people currently in the country to apply for visas and eventually citizenship as long as they make restitution for entering the country illegally.

The Field Poll suggested that his view is in sync with a strong majority of California's likely voters, 70 percent of whom support a similarly comprehensive approach, including 63 percent of Republicans.

But it was his appeal for compassion here that stuck in the craw of some conservatives.

“I think it's very important to never get mad at anyone that is trying to come to this country,” Schwarzenegger said. “I understand people wanting to be part of this state.”

As soon as he read the quote early the next morning, conservative blogger Jon Fleischman reached for his keyboard.

“Why would I not get mad at anyone trying to come into this country, if they are coming here in violation of the law?” he wrote in FlashReport, which is widely read in California Republican circles.

In this supercharged political climate, the illegal immigration issue is a potential minefield for all candidates. But it poses different challenges for Democrats and Republicans, said Democratic strategist Garry South, who directed state Controller Steve Westly's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.

“They have to be careful in different ways,” South said. “A Democrat addressing the issue of immigration has to be very careful that they don't wander so far on the side of being wimpy about it that you tick off the middle-of-the-road, white independent voters that you need to win in California.

“A Republican has to be careful that you don't wander so far over to the draconian side that they tick of Latino voters or send a signal to white middle-of-the-road voters that you're intolerant.”

Angelides holds similar views on immigration as Schwarzenegger, but is called on to address the issue far less frequently. That apparently is because his partisans are less interested in the issue than Schwarzenegger's.

In last week's Field Poll, Schwarzenegger supporters put illegal immigration first on their agenda with 56 percent of them calling it “among the most important” issues in deciding whom to vote for. In contrast, illegal immigration ranked a distant sixth on the list for Angelides supporters, with only 32 percent of them saying it was among the most important issues.