Washington. -- Asegment on CNN's "Capitol Gang" dealt with the recent announcement of presidential candidacy by California's Gov. Pete Wilson, which was delivered in front of the Statue of Liberty.
The video clips showed the candidate criticizing a welfare system that offers extra money to recipients who have additional children while on welfare, decrying the fact that law-abiding Americans fear to go outside because of street crime, deploring an affirmative-action process that has evolved into de facto quotas and condemning the porous border control that allows a steady stream of illegal immigrants into America.
The CNN commentators were less than happy with Governor Wilson. To Mark Shields, the Wilson announcement seemed like a "recruitment drive for the Montana Militia." Al Hunt announced that "Pete Wilson declaring his candidacy in front of the Statue of Liberty is like David Duke declaring in front of the Martin Luther King Center." (Isn't it nice to have moderate commentators around to condemn the extremists?)
Messrs. Shields and Hunt are not alone; liberals and conservatives alike have shown a reflexive distaste for the Wilson campaign.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Montana Militia. I have found David Duke's policies repugnant. But after reading Governor Wilson's speeches from his cross-country "Liberty Tour," I think his campaign is right on target. He is accentuating the social issues and the values issues. "American optimism is being undermined by the federal government . . . ," he says. "It gives lip service to our values, but doesn't seem to share them, and clearly doesn't fight for them."
Not many Americans would disagree that crime and welfare are two of America's most important problems, and that we ought to be tougher on both. The current level of crime is subverting the essence of civil society. Welfare, arguably, is pushing up illegitimate birth rates to an all-time high. That is a clear recipe for social tragedy and turbulence.
Mr. Wilson is also right about affirmative action. It started out as a good idea for "outreach," and then led to goals, timetables, sanctions and compliance -- that is, to preference, proportionalism and quotas. That corrodes the idea of merit, which is central to American values. These days affirmative action is harmful to both whites and blacks, and to the American way of life. Governor Wilson recently changed the University of California's quota policies.
His stand on immigration is more complex. He endorsed California's Proposition 187, which stipulated that the state would no longer pay most social-service expenditures for illegal immigrants. That's not a bad idea in principle, although cutting off public schooling for the children of illegal immigrants is probably counterproductive.
Most everyone is against illegal immigration. Mr. Wilson, however, is not anti-legal-immigration. Pat Buchanan has endorsed cutting out legal immigration. President Clinton, who appears in California to criticize the governor on immigration, has already signed on to a proposal to reduce legal immigration. Mr. Wilson, the alleged nativist, has come out for no so such thing.
What is it about Governor Wilson that raises hackles across the ** political spectrum? He has the political background of a moderate; he once raised taxes, he once favored affirmative action and he's now pro-choice (like about 70 percent of Americans, including about half of registered Republicans).
How dare a moderate run on popular conservative social themes? That threatens everyone on the hustings and on the television shows.
Liberals fear that a moderate's tough endorsement of tough themes might legitimize such themes. Conservatives fear that their ideological monopoly is now subject to a hostile takeover by a candidate who also has the popular side of issues where conservatives fall short. So both sides say Mr. Wilson is an insincere, pandering demagogue, who, goodness, has changed some of his views.
Politics is a pastime that never ceases to amaze. If a candidate sticks by his beliefs he is condemned as a dogmatic, inflexible relic. If he changes over time, as circumstances change, and agrees with voters who have changed their minds for similar reasons, he is called a panderer.
My sense is that most Americans have another view: If a candidate gets 'em all angry he may be doing something right.
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, "Think Tank."