As we live and breathe!

Posted: Mar 11, 2002 12:00 AM
The California primary was mint-julep time for American conservatives who, however pleased they are about George W., very much needed a sign of life from the outback. What was especially spectacular about Bill Simon's victory was its dire unpredictability. We have now in the White House the son of a GOP patriarch and, prospectively in the governor's mansion in California, the son of another GOP patriarch. And where in California? In Sacramento, where 35 years ago another upstart Republican arrived, making his way to the White House, where he officiated for eight years, pending his final destination in the American pantheon.

We are carried away? Yes. Why not? Politics should permit that, every now and then. We need to see those occasional shafts of light; otherwise, the grayness of politics takes over, and we tighten our belts to the ineluctabilities of demagogy and compromise and waste and bureaucratic asphyxiation. Or, we don't tighten our belts at all, and just wallow on in the torpor of it all.

Everything about the Simon upset is gratifying.

  • Bill Simon was so invisible a name in California that when he won the primary, some people reportedly had to look in the newspaper to remind themselves of the name of the winner.

  • If ever there was an underdog, it was he. As recently as in December, he was being given 5 percent of the Republican primary vote, up against 20-odd for Secretary of State Bill Jones, and 40 to 50 percent for Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles.

  • Bill Simon was not only unknown, he gave the impression of being deservedly unknown. At his first major appearance announcing his candidacy in New York City, his speech and manner were those of the committed amateur, and many in the audience contrasted his performance wistfully with that of his late father, the charismatic former secretary of the Treasury, a commanding figure on stage and off stage.

  • This time around, President Bush flouted the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. The president's representative in California urged Riordan to compete for the Republican nomination. This violated Reagan's so-called Eleventh Commandment, which was never to favor one Republican over another in a primary contest. The backing of the Bush machine in California appeared to deepen the odds against Simon, but two developments began to affect favorably his prospects. The first was the intervention of Rudy Giuliani, who had known Simon as an assistant prosecutor when Rudy was U.S. attorney. Giuliani did more merely than say nice things about Simon while passing through. He vigorously campaigned for him.

    A second development was an astonishing series of ads taken by California Gov. Gray Davis aimed at Richard Riordan, who loomed as the Republican challenger. The ads brought attention to Riordan's eccentric record, a Republican whose various attachments to various causes and political figures made him politically amorphous. If it was Gov. Davis' intention to hurt Riordan -- on the grounds that he was a graver prospective menace than Simon -- it's clear that he did hurt him, but not clear that he will, in the end, have an easier time of it with Simon as his opponent.

    California is a Democratic state, but the question in November is likelier to rest on whether four more years of Gray Davis are to be preferred to a term for a fresh and vigorous challenger, never mind that he is a conservative. What doesn't work in California is a spiritless candidacy associated with anaemic programs. It is all very well for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic chairman, to argue that Simon will have to bear the weight of being pro-life, pro-guns and anti-environment. Even in California, there are those who will ask themselves: If Simon is elected, does that mean the Supreme Court will rescind Roe v. Wade? If he is elected, will people negotiate their differences with six-shooters? If elected, will California beaches simply disappear?

    The hallucinations are in contrast to life as it is under Gov. Gray Davis, with fitful power supplies, high taxes, high deficits, and a generation of schoolchildren being taught illiteracy in two languages. The prospect of a young, idealistic conservative who has already practiced beating the odds may prove appealing. It would be fine if the Republican presidential nominating convention in 2004 took place in Sacramento, and were welcomed by Gov. William E. Simon Jr.