IT IS AN ARTICLE OF FAITH among political journalists that Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative approved by California voters to deny illegal immigrants state benefits, was poison to the Republican party. Somehow the measure, though endorsed by 59 percent of voters and many GOP candidates, is bad politics. So it was inevitable that when Arnold Schwarzenegger ventured into the governor's race, the Los Angeles Times would blare: "Actor voted for the divisive '94 initiative, a move that could alienateLatinos. But analysts say it might help him with hard-core conservatives."

In the same spirit, another Times story noted the danger of Schwarzenegger's taking positions on immigration issues: "That risk was apparent Sunday when former Gov. Pete Wilson, a co-chairman of the actor's campaign, acknowledged that Schwarzenegger backed Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to curb public services for illegal immigrants."

The recall election should put an end to this nonsense. As the results of the recall confirm, Proposition 187, while clearly no killer for Republicans, instead pushed the Democrats into a corner. Their refusal to distinguish between illegal and legal immigration put them at odds with the California mainstream.

When Wilson aired a campaign ad in 1994 that showed illegal immigrants streaming across the border, Democrats were quick to attack him. The California Democratic party argued that it was racist to deny illegal immigrants state benefits.

The R-word didn't help Democrats keep Wilson out of the governor's horseshoe that year--Wilson defeated Kathleen Brown by 55 percent to 40 percent--but it defined a position they have had to live with ever since. This year, Democratic politicians obscured their position by referring to illegals simply as "immigrants."

When he was elected governor in 1998, Gray Davis tried to straddle the 187 divide. Davis had opposed the measure when it was on the ballot, but he didn't want to be seen as thwarting the will of California voters. After the courts gutted the measure, Davis tried to craft a judicial compromise. This outraged Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who denounced Davis. Thus began the rift that would prompt Bustamante to run in the recall election, despite party solons' efforts to keep Democratic officeholders out of the race.

Meanwhile, energized Latino Democrats started producing bills to help "undocumented" immigrants. Again Davis tried to appease the Latino corner without provoking anger from the majority. In his first term, Davis signed a bill that gave an in-state tuition tax break to illegal immigrants attending California colleges and universities, but he twice vetoed bills to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses.

The license vetoes hurt Davis with the Latino caucus. The Democrats' opposition to Prop. 187 had transformed the party. Under Wilson, many Latino legislators--including Bustamante--had supported a measure that required driver's license applicants to show proof of citizenship or legal residency. Now, Democrats were demanding that such laws be overturned--or else. Team Davis attributed a drop in his support from Latinos--an estimated 400,000 fewer Latinos showed up at the polls to vote for Davis in 2002 than in 1998--to his driver's license vetoes.

Enter the recall. Davis strategists rightly anticipated high conservative turnout. The way to win, they decided, was to energize the party's base and boost the flagging Latino vote. A desperate Davis announced that he would sign SB 60, a driver's license bill then up for consideration in the legislature. Call it his last mistake.

It hit every Davis sore point. Davis had vetoed similar bills on the grounds that they required no background checks on those applying for America's gateway document. He'd noted that "a driver's license was in the hands of terrorists who attacked America" on September 11. He also feared lest the state give legitimacy to escaped criminals.

Facing political extinction, however, Davis was ready to sign on the dotted line--and, he let it be known, he would sign unconditionally, even without a background-check provision. Davis faced a recall because voters suspected that he would sell them out to save his own sorry skin. And he had just confirmed it.

It was a move, according to the Los Angeles Times poll, to which 38 percent of Latino voters were strongly opposed, while nearly three quarters of state voters overall disapproved. So the message was wrong, and the math was wrong.

But California Democratic party chairman Art Torres couldn't see it. He repeatedly tried to undermine Schwarzenegger by reminding voters of the actor's ties to Wilson, the evil purveyor of Prop. 187. As Wilson noted on election night, Schwarzenegger's overwhelming victory proved that he and 187 are good politics.

Shameless pandering to Latinos failed to pay off. Yes, Latino turnout grew, but Latinos didn't behave as a monolith. While Torres and other Democrats thought they owned the Latino vote, only 54 percent of Latinos voted against the recall; only 52 percent voted for Bustamante.

And while newspapers were suggesting that support for Prop. 187 might hurt Schwarzenegger, it was Bustamante who tanked, with a mere 32 percent of the vote in a state that has 44 percent Democratic registration.

Bustamante began the race refusing to distance himself from MEChA, a radical student organization that proposes Latino separation. At the first candidates' debate, when asked if there were a single state benefit that he would deny to illegal immigrants, Bustamante didn't name one. Later, in answer to the same question, Bustamante told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that he would deny illegals the right to vote and passports--that was it.

As pollster Frank Luntz told me at a pre-election press conference for his client Arnold Schwarzenegger, when Davis signed SB 60, "That was the beginning of the end of Cruz Bustamante."

Debra J. Saunders writes a nationally syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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