Matt Yglesias wrote an article that at first struck me as obvious but now seems profound, Donald Trump Could Be a Generation-Long Disaster for the Republican Party. He made a branding argument. The Republican Party already struggles with support from any group that isn’t white and dying off fast. The key to Trump’s success in the GOP primary has been that he’s made text of the party’s long used subtext. And this doesn’t just speak for Donald Trump; it speaks of the Republican Party. As Yglesias conjectures, Latinos (but also African Americans, Muslims, and even young people) will not soon forgive and forget.
The key to the argument is Pete Wilson. He is well known in California and now more or less a cautionary tale. He was twice selected US Senator and then twice elected governor. On paper, he’s an incredibly successful politician. But he is also largely responsible for destroying the Republican Party in California. And that is due, in large part, to his association with Proposition 187.
Proposition 187 was passed in 1994 — at the same time that Pete Wilson won his second term as governor. It was the first ever state anti-immigration law that was supposed to stop, for example, undocumented children from using our public schools. It was a really vile law that was quickly found to be unconstitutional and was never put into effect. It was also an embarrassment. It was much like Proposition 8 in 2008 that made same-sex marriage illegal. People voted for it, but the state as a whole quickly saw it as a mistake.
So even though Wilson won in 1994, he branded the GOP as the party of intolerance. It is a little funny as a Californian. The state isn’t nearly as liberal as others think. But more important, the state isn’t as liberal as its own residents think. It isn’t just demographic factors that turned Prop 187 into an embarrassment. And it isn’t demographic factors at all that turned Prop 8 into one. Californians work themselves up into a froth over issues like that and then, in the clear light of day (without the drumbeat of an election), we are embarrassed because we don’t see ourselves as the intolerant people our voting often suggests.
California used to be a swing state. As I remember with great annoyance, George Bush Sr beat Michael Dukakis by over 3.5 percentage points. (Note: where I live in the Bay Area, Dukakis won; Prop 8 lost; and Prop 187 lost.) But now it is one of the bluest of states.
Barbara Boxer used to be a US Representative from liberal Marin County. She was widely considered a liberal extremist. I never thought she would be able to win any statewide election. She did win in a fairly close race in 1992, largely because of Bill Clinton. But since then, she’s been reelected by large margins: 10 percentage points in 1998, 20 in 2004, and 10 in the Republican’s huge year of 2010.
What’s more, the state assembly and senate are both currently 65% Democratic.
The issue for the Republican Party nationwide is whether this will happen to them. Pete Wilson and the Republicans won the battle in 1994, but lost the war — and quickly. In Donald Trump’s case, it doesn’t even look like he will win the battle. But he is doing a great job of branding the party as intolerant jerks. If you look at the data from Gallup, Trump has had strong approval from Republican voters from the beginning. His net favorability right now is 24 percentage points!
George Will hopes that the Republican Party can just put Trump behind it, lose in 2016, and come back strong in 2020. And maybe it can. But there will be even fewer white people then. And there will be more Latinos. And as much as they may be seen more and more as “white,” they are not likely to forgive and forget what the Republican Party is all about.
Update: Pete Wilson’s Endorsement
I wrote this early morning yesterday, not thinking about the Indiana primary. A few days ago, Pete Wilson endorsed Ted Cruz. Well, that’s all over now.