On Wednesday, Spitzer pulled the plug on his efforts to grant driver licenses to illegal immigrants in New York. With that concession, we witness one of the most spectacular political defeats in recent memory, right up there with Schwarzenegger’s special-election drubbing of 2005. To say Spitzer had his head figuratively handed to him would be a rhetorical understatement. The rejection he experienced was so powerful, the opposition so intense, the defeat so conclusive, that we could more accurately say Spitzer had not only his head, but also every other severable body part, grinded up and fired back at him through a cannon. This is a proposal that went wrong at every turn. At first the Empire State governor faced a wave of reasonable objections having to do with voting and national security. So he went to the Department of Homeland Security, and came up with a three-tiered plan designed to answer those concerns. No such luck. Immigration restrictionists still weren’t going to countenance what they considered a giveaway to illegal immigrants, and immigration-advocacy groups resented what they perceived as unequal treatment. Thus Spitzer succeeded only in riling up the opposition while deflating his allies. “You don’t need a stethoscope to hear the heartbeat of the public on this one. There are some moments where emotions are simply too hot.” – Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York REMEMBER those words. Arnold Schwarzenegger surely will. Those words tell you all you need to know about why Schwarzenegger is not going to touch the issue of driver licenses for illegal immigrants any time soon. Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, can get the legislation passed 1,000 times, and it won’t make any difference. Schwarzenegger will always find a reason to say no. Then came various bureaucrats who said they would refuse to cooperate with Spitzer’s plan – a logistical nightmare – as well as intense opposition from New York’s Legislature. Activist groups challenged the policy in court. And finally, the coup de grace: The issue caused the first real hiccup in New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when she proved unable to discuss it coherently (or honestly) in a candidates’ debate. It was bad enough that this gambit was destroying Spitzer’s political career (his approval rating fell from an impressive 75 percent to a horrific 33 percent). But when it began imperiling Hillary’s, Democratic Party bigwigs weren’t going to stand for it much longer. So Spitzer has begged off, crushed and defeated. Never mind that, from a practical standpoint, what he advocated was actually quite modest. Whatever one thinks about immigration, illegal-immigrant drivers are a reality that no state law is going to change. Better, Spitzer reasoned, to get these drivers licensed, insured and identified, thereby minimizing the threat to public safety and insurance rates that they pose. But New York, although as “blue” a state as you will find save for a few red pockets upstate, would have nothing to do with it. Polls showed the public opposed to the plan by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. Forget Social Security, immigration has become the new third rail in American politics – an issue so contentious that, from a politician’s standpoint, it’s safest to do nothing at all. One could argue that a California governor wouldn’t face the same level of opposition, or vitriol, as Spitzer encountered in New York. After all, California has a much larger and better-organized Latino population. But California also has many more illegal immigrants. Here, the immigration issue is no abstraction; it touches everyone’s lives every day. The passions run even deeper here, making the issue even more potentially explosive. In retrospect, it’s worth asking how much illegal immigration played a role in the recall of Gov. Gray Davis back in 2003. Typically, the economy, the budget and Schwarzenegger’s sheer popularity are cited as the main reasons for Davis’ ouster. His signing a bill that would have given driver licenses to illegal immigrants is generally treated as an afterthought. Yet it’s worth remembering that, according to a Field Poll taken shortly before the recall, Californians opposed Davis’ decision by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio. What’s more, among those who supported the recall, opposition reached 75 percent. In light of the fate that met Davis, Spitzer arguably got off easy. Schwarzenegger got the message, which is why, upon taking office, overturning the Davis law was one of his top priorities. And though he has since maintained that he’s amenable to granting driver licenses to illegal immigrants under the right circumstances, the right circumstances, according to his ever-shifting definition, never seem to materialize. Schwarzenegger has cleverly tried to play both sides on this issue, appeasing immigration advocates by saying he’s open to the license idea in theory, while satisfying restrictionists by always being opposed in reality. Given what happened to Spitzer, who can blame him? Chris Weinkopf, the Daily News’ editorial-page editor, blogs at insidesocal.com/friendlyfire. Write to him by e-mail at [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!