Originally Published in The San Diego Union-Tribune
Michael Smolens - October 9, 2020
Former governor says Trump has been strong on foreign policy, the economy, immigration and made the right moves early on COVID-19
Some 70 former elected officials, policymakers and diplomats last week released a letter endorsing President Donald Trump for re-election.
None of them received more attention than Pete Wilson, former California governor, U.S. senator and mayor of San Diego.
The letter focused on foreign affairs, saying the president has brought a “badly needed realism to American national security policy.”
To absolutely no surprise, Wilson’s endorsement rekindled interest in his past actions, and current views, on combating illegal immigration.
After all, more than one political analyst in recent years has written, in essence, that when it comes to that issue, Wilson was Trump before Trump.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Wilson praised the president’s actions in a number of areas — foreign policy, the economy, coronavirus pandemic and illegal immigration. There’s plenty of disagreement over Trump’s acumen in all of them.
Wilson suggested Trump would get greater credit for his accomplishments if the president’s personality didn’t sometimes get in the way.
“His opposition, I think, is basically based on style,” said Wilson, adding, “I’d have to say there are some legitimate points” there.
Wilson said he supports the president’s approach on immigration, which has been one of Trump’s most disputed policies. As he has for more than two decades, Wilson also said his own positions have been distorted by opponents and that his reputation has been smeared.
Fairly or not, the former Republican governor’s history will forever be highlighted by his support for Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to limit illegal immigration by cutting off state services, including health care and public education, to undocumented immigrants in California. Wilson won re-election that year and the ballot measure passed, though the proposition later was largely struck down by the courts.
“I think they’ve been doing the right thing,” he said of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
He singled out construction of the extended wall along the border with Mexico and the push to shift legal immigration to a merit-based system rather than one that focuses on family unification.
Trump “has come to the same conclusions I did and (that) I foresaw with 187,” Wilson said.
Headlines reflected this notion five years ago when Trump centered his campaign on immigration: “On immigration, Trump takes a page from Pete Wilson’s 1994 playbook,” “How Donald Trump is the GOP’s new Pete Wilson,” “On immigration, Trump evokes Wilson era.”
Wilson, who was not the author of Proposition 187, has said if he had it to do over again, he would still support the measure. He described the initiative as an extension of his lawsuits as governor seeking to get the federal government to pay California for the financial impacts of illegal immigration, given that controlling immigration is a federal responsibility.
He said Democratic governors in other states did the same thing.
“It was to get Washington to quit sticking state taxpayers for federal mandates,” he said.
But the campaigns for his re-election and Proposition 187 put illegal immigration in a much more volatile political context.
His campaign featured a now-infamous television ad that used a grainy, black-and-white video of people dashing across a border port of entry through traffic, with an ominous voice saying “They keep coming.”
Wilson was criticized for the campaign’s tone as well as the content.
“I take real exception to that,” he said, issuing a challenge to “find one word” that wasn’t true.
As for the quality of the video, which came from a federal immigration agency, he attributed that to the camera technology used at the time.
He noted the campaign ran another ad, largely forgotten today, that featured a naturalization ceremony at the Cabrillo National Monument lighthouse.
“I said years ago we are a nation of legal immigrants,” he said, adding that there’s “a right way and a wrong way” to come to America.
He resents how he has been portrayed by some critics.
“There are few nastier smears than the charge of racism,” he said.
The letter of endorsement, first reported by Politico, comes in the wake of a letter signed by a bipartisan group of nearly 500 former national security officials and military leaders endorsing Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.
On foreign policy, Wilson said Trump has stood up to adversaries, citing a willingness to take a tougher approach to China on trade and Iran on nuclear development than his predecessors. There’s disagreement over whether those policies have been successful, however.
He disputes critics’ claim that U.S. global leadership has diminished under Trump.
“A lot of people have not been happy with him because he’s been forthright and strong,” said Wilson.
He said the news media has downplayed or ignored Trump’s success in the Middle East, which includes helping broker the recognition of Israel by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
On the domestic front, Wilson said the strength of the U.S. economy under Trump before the coronavirus pandemic “stunned even his supporters.”
Wilson sides with Trump in believing that states should open up their economies and “allow people who are healthy to function,” while enacting policies that protect the most vulnerable to COVID-19. He cited the Great Barrington Declaration, a document signed by 6,000 experts worldwide criticizing lockdown policies.
Wilson said his support has not wavered for the president since Trump announced he tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
He also defended the president’s response to the outbreak.
“I think he deserves high praise for going forward early by forbidding flights from China and later Europe,” said Wilson, adding those moves were successful in “containing it to a very considerable extent.”
More than 212,000 Americans have died from the virus, but Wilson said the situation would be worse were it not for Trump’s early action.
Given his alignment with Trump, it’s easy to forget that during most of his political career Wilson was largely viewed as a moderate who supports abortion rights and backs tax increases to thwart fiscal peril. As a two-term governor, he navigated California through a tremendous budget deficit, fires, floods and earthquakes. By many accounts, he left the state better off than when he was elected in 1990.
But as time moved on, Wilson, now 87, became known more for his stance on illegal immigration and Proposition 187 than anything else — especially since the political ascendancy of Trump, who remains very unpopular with voters in the state Wilson once governed.
In recent years, Wilson has sought to move beyond his controversial legacy on illegal immigration. His endorsement of Trump will make that harder to do.