Two years ago, a popular ballot initiative against illegal immigration helped to boost the campaign of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, carrying him to a second term in office. Governor Wilson hoped that an initiative measure against affirmative-action programs would work the same magic this year, drawing California voters to back the Republican nominee for president.
The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), as the measure is known, remains highly popular in polls. But even Republican backers now question whether the ballot initiative will have the political punch they had earlier believed.
"Anyone who is thinking CCRI is going to be to election '96 in California what Proposition 187 was to election '94 is going to be sadly mistaken," says Republican state Assemblyman James Brulte.
On the surface, affirmative action is one major issue where Republicans and Democrats can draw clear lines of distinction, making it a "wedge issue." President Clinton has clearly opposed the CCRI while favoring reform of affirmative-action programs to remove race-based quotas. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole is just as firmly on the record supporting the California ballot initiative, widely backed by the Republican Party here.
But the Dole camp now is having doubts about the political efficacy of this stance, and the senator's aides have quietly started to distance him from the issue.
During a recent campaign swing through California, Mr. Dole did not even mention affirmative action. Senior campaign adviser Ken Khachigian, de facto head of Dole's California campaign, has been noticeably reluctant to embrace the fight against affirmative action. "That issue is going to be very substantial in the fall in the state, but it is not clear if it will be a presidential issue," he told reporters during Dole's visit to the state.
A word of warning
Former California Gov. George Deukmejian, talking to reporters at a campaign appearance with Dole, was openly critical of the effort to define CCRI as a partisan issue between Republicans and Democrats. "The timing of the ballot initiative could, if not handled properly, create further divisions within the community," he said. Mr. Deukmejian, a Republican, has advised the Dole campaign not to emphasize the issue, according to Assemblyman Brulte.
As is the case with abortion rights, Dole is also under pressure on this question from moderate Republicans. "[CCRI] poses as an equal-opportunity initiative but puts at risk every outreach program, sets back the gains made by women, and puts the brakes on expanding opportunity for people in need," said retired Gen. Colin Powell, a frequently mentioned potential vice presidential candidate, delivering a recent commencement speech.
"Proponents are discovering that while they may win, it's not an issue that has coattails," comments political scientist Mark Petracca at the University of California, Irvine.
Why the retreat?
Republican strategists and independent analysts name several reasons why CCRI is not having the impact of 1992's anti-immigration initiative, Proposition 187.
While CCRI may gain some votes for Republicans among white males, it may lose votes among women. The measure's opponents emphasize that CCRI, which would ban preferences in state hiring, public education, and contracting, would end antidiscrimination programs that aid not only blacks and other minorities but also women.
The issue also fails to generate the kind of emotional fire that illegal immigration does. "The polling numbers [for CCRI] are good, but I'm not sure the intensity level is as strong as [Proposition] 187 was," says Brulte. "To those not directly affected by reverse discrimination, it is an academic question."
Another key difference is the dramatic improvement in California's economy. Two years ago, when California was still deep in recession, many residents transferred their economic anxiety to illegal immigrants. "There was an economic punch to 187," says Mr. Petracca. Now that jobs are more plentiful, "what's the economic punch to this issue?"
Affirmative action could still be a potent issue, argues Republican political consultant Sal Russo.
"If this is seen as an effort to correct abuses and provide other ladders of opportunity for people, then it could be a strong and powerful issue," he says. "If it is seen as mean-spirited, then I don't think it will be a very good issue at all."