Pete Wilson's presidential candidacy is dead, his governorship in tatters. For all his most recent, highly publicized difficulties--bitter staff infighting and the angry resignation of his longtime campaign manager, slackening fund-raising and mounting debt--his central problem was quite simple.
He has been revealed to the public and press as a vicious little flip-flopper, expedient to the point of caricature, ultimately responsible only to his own ambition.
Had Democrat Kathleen Brown's campaign not been perfectly designed to lose, this might well have been made evident last year when Californians reluctantly reelected Wilson as their governor. In order to have won, of course, Brown would also have to have presented an imaginative vision of her own. That she could not is as much an index of the decreasing relevance of Democratic politics as it is a measure of her own failure as a candidate.
But it is not simply Democratic politics that is decreasingly relevant to the challenges of our time; it is the current two-party system. Neither party presents a compelling vision of a coherent future. Conventional politics has devolved into the slicing and dicing of a shrinking electorate and the honing and targeting of resentment. And as the words of politicians ring increasingly false, popular discontent grows.
Wilson helped create the new climate of heavy-weather politics and is now one of its victims. He deserves special recognition for stirring up racial discord in an already touchy society. The irony is that he once seemed set to chart a very different course.
Then, he was the champion of "preventive government," the fundamental precept on which he ran in 1990, the centerpiece of his first inaugural. There was to be a new Republican Party--environmentally conscious, socially libertarian, government-friendly, focused on early intervention to solve social problems--in which the hard right was to be on the periphery.
This "moderate" Wilson, it turns out, was something of a holographic projection of his late campaign director and chief spokesman, Otto Bos. When Bos died of a heart attack in 1991, the hologram disappeared. Wilson became the heir to the Nixon mantle in Republican politics, with his well-honed ability to focus popular anxiety on defenseless targets.
In the latest iteration of his reinvention, that characteristic came to define his presidential candidacy, as Wilson adopted some of Pat Buchanan's 1992 message as his own, caterwauling about affirmative action and illegal immigration as the central issues facing the country.
Though this year's anti-affirmative-action rap was brand new, the reinvention actually began more than two years ago in Fresno. There, in the early summer of 1993, the Wilson team conducted a test market reelection campaign. It emphasized crime and positioned Wilson not as a "preventive government" leader, for that theme had been dropped, but as a governor doing the best he could in tough times. It fell flat. Something more was needed. That certain something turned out to be illegal immigration, in spite of his past record and statements on the issue.
Developing a potent one-two issues punch of crime and immigration, Wilson became the tribune of Anglo enclaveism. He cast himself as the defender of an anxious white middle class against the threatening "other," who conveniently possess few votes and fewer dollars. And so the bridges politics of "preventive government" became the walls politics of "fairness."
Most political concession or withdrawal speeches are dreadful, with the politician making one last desperate grab for a piece of posterity. Even by this standard, Wilson's was strikingly Twilight Zone-ish. The governor cast his somersaulting politics of recycled Buchananism as a daring and successful effort to set the national political agenda. "We have been engaged," declared this discredited candidate of expediency, "in a great fight based on high principles to build a better America."
As he delivered this blather before a crowd of his appointees in a Sacramento restaurant, a band of Ross Perot's Reform Party volunteers lingered on the mall outside, signing up voters for the new party. It was fitting, since the discontent they represent now drives the whirlwind that has cast this governor aside.