McCarthy Ad Brings Wilson’s Most Dramatic Vote Back to Haunt Him

Times Staff Writer

Pete Wilson’s most famous moment in the U.S. Senate is coming back to haunt him.

In May of 1985, Wilson was wheeled onto the Senate floor on a gurney, a day after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. His arm still attached to an intravenous bottle, he had made the painful trip to the Senate floor to cast the deciding vote on a controversial bill to lower the federal deficit, in part by reducing Medicare and Medicaid funding and by eliminating Social Security benefit increases for one year.

Today, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, Wilson’s Democratic opponent in the Senate race, is pointing to that vote and others like it as prima facie evidence of Wilson’s hardheartedness toward elderly people. McCarthy’s message, the crux of his latest televised campaign commercial, goes to the heart of his attack on Wilson as a politician who is estranged from the average Californian.

Point to Votes


While Wilson was voting 17 times to cut Social Security and Medicare, the ad says, he was voting for billions of dollars in tax breaks for big corporations.

“Leo McCarthy--a senator for us. Pete Wilson--a senator for them,” goes the tag line of every McCarthy ad produced to date.

McCarthy aides said the ads began airing in Sacramento and Fresno on Friday. They follow an earlier ad broadcast in the same cities that extolled McCarthy’s service to elderly people. That commercial talks about efforts by McCarthy to curb nursing home abuses and to start nutrition programs for needy old people.

Wilson is not the first Republican senator forced to contend with political fallout from the 1985 vote on a bill that ultimately was vetoed by President Reagan.


But Wilson’s support for the legislation was the most dramatic. Moreover, it was not the only time he voted to hold down automatic increases in Social Security benefits or reductions in Medicare and Medicaid. Now, he faces the task of projecting a more sensitive image and of undercutting McCarthy’s record on issues affecting elderly people.

Wilson believes he can win the support of elderly voters by stressing their personal security. Aides said their polls indicate that old people are more worried about law and order than they are about the size of their Social Security checks.

“You can feel a lot more comfortable with Pete Wilson’s record on Social Security than you can with Leo McCarthy’s record on physical security,” said Otto Bos, Wilson’s campaign manager.

Wilson is expected to focus on McCarthy’s support for former California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, his opposition to the victims’ bill of rights and his past opposition to the death penalty. Wilson refers to McCarthy’s change of heart on that issue as an election-year conversion.


Wilson anticipated that McCarthy would go after him on Social Security and Medicare and actually began counterpunching last spring, before many people were tuned into the race, with a television ad exploiting a blemish on McCarthy’s record on Social Security.

The commercial pointed out that as a member of the state Legislature in 1982, McCarthy, in a budget-cutting move, voted to reduce Social Security benefits for aged, blind and disabled people.

The McCarthy camp dismissed that vote as a distortion much as Wilson’s aides are now trying to discredit the new McCarthy ad.

“Basically, it’s a character attack, a bit of character assassination we are calling McCarthyism,” Bos said.


So far, Wilson has not aired an ad discussing his voting record on issues affecting old people. But on the stump he has defended controversial votes on old-age benefits, like the one he cast in 1985, as “tough votes” aimed at warding off the kind of inflation that could threaten old people on fixed incomes.

At Dole’s Request

Wilson came to the Senate floor that day in 1985 at the urgent request of his friend and party leader, Kansas Sen. Robert Dole.

While he was running for President this year, Dole liked to kid about what Wilson went through, from the operating table to the Senate floor only to have the bill vetoed by a Republican President.


“Pete’d had an appendectomy. By the time it was over, I think he wished he’d had a lobotomy,” Dole used to joke until advised by Wilson’s staff that the California senator didn’t find it funny.