The race for Arizona Governor between incumbent Jan Brewer and Attorney General Terry Goddard comes down to who will frame the issues of the race. If Jan Brewer succeeds in making the campaign a referendum on illegal immigration, she wins. If Goddard is able to make the race about, well... reality, then he wins.
All the real issues Arizona is facing - the economic crisis, a state budget in free-fall, the hang-over from one of the worst housing bubbles in the nation, chronic unemployment, Arizona's failing educational system, our horribly insecure privatized prisons - all indicate that we need a new direction in Arizona that Brewer is not interested in (nor capable of) providing.
But Brewer - or at least her advisors - are not stupid. They know that the best way to win an election when you've completely fucked up is to scare the crap out of people. God, gays and guns only really works for the base. To win a general election you need a boogieman that cuts across party lines and attracts independents who otherwise couldn't be arsed to go to the polls. You only need to look back a little ways in GOP history and over to California to find a workable model.
California Republican Governor Pete Wilson's 1994 reelection campaign is practically a road map for Brewer. Facing very low approval ratings and a 20 point deficit against Democrat Kathleen Brown, Wilson exploited concerns over immigration and became the chief proponent of Prop 187 (jingoistically dubbed "Save Our State"), which denied state benefits to undocumented immigrants. Prop 187 was penned by a reactionary GOP member of the California Assembly, referred to the ballot, was wildly popular with voters, was immediately enjoined from enforcement, and later held to be unconstitutional as an infringement of the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration. A complete waste of time; but Wilson won.
Does any of this sound at all familiar? Do these ads look familiar?
Republicans have learned that when they fuck up, they have to do something extra-constitutional to target somebody whom folks can be made afraid of.
Lately, especially in the southwest border states, that target is immigrants. This technique works marvelously well in tough economic times because it allows the plutocracy, whom the GOP actually represents, to displace people's economic anxieties from their pro-corporate, anti-middle class policies to the actions of poor immigrants.
Their claim is always that the naughty immigrants are stealing American jobs, unfairly sucking up unaffordable amounts of public benefits, and causing a wave of crime, mayhem and violence. It's all utter bullshit, but it is a compelling and credible-sounding story that seems to comport with compelling media images, fantastical claims by GOP politicians, and common sense. And it's electoral gold.
One of the common mistakes that Democratic politician make in the face of such a ruse is to take the "me too" stance. They try to appear to also be quite concerned about this menace, but just a little more reasonable about the solutions, and then try to change the subject as quickly as possible to something they actually want to talk about. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't really change the subject; it just makes Democrats look weak on the menace. If Goddard does this, he's dead meat.
What Democrats have to do is to take the issue and make it their own by redefining the issue. You can't just deny there is a problem - that makes you look out of touch.
What I have seen so far from Goddard's campaign is encouraging. He's redefining the problem not as illegal immigration per se, but of criminal gangs operating in the border area - putting the problem directly in his wheelhouse as Attorney General. It's a risk in that he can be criticized because, well, he is the Attorney General, but it makes for a strong argument that what people need to be concerned about is not the Mexican who comes here to landscape your yard, and clean your toilet, and make your chimichanga (hopefully not in that order), but the criminal gangs of Mexico that are seriously destabilizing the Mexican state and bringing a surge of violence across the border.
By tackling the most serious problem head-on - the criminal activity surrounding illicit cross-border activities, including drug and human smuggling and rampant kidnapping - and addressing very clearly the causes and solutions of that problem, the Democrats get traction and credibility and start to be able to turn the debate toward practical solutions and away from grandstanding legislation and draconian crackdowns on maids and gardeners and bus-boys.
Most importantly, by behaving responsibly Democrats do not become part of the treat-the-Mexican-like-a-pinata bandwagon. In fact, they gain the credibility to begin to take that bandwagon apart lie by lie, rather than standing in the crowd impotently with a protest sign and an apologetic look.
If Goddard can disarm the only weapon Brewer has in this fight - her demagoguery on immigration - then he wins the space to talk about jobs, economic development, education and criminal justice reforms. And if he gets to talk about these topics, he wins the election, because Brewer will simply have nothing to talk about.