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Separated at Birth? : Feinstein/Wilson: There's not a nickel's worth of difference, but both are capable. Then why are we so unhappy?

October 12, 1990|JAY MATHEWS | Jay Mathews is Los Angeles correspondent for the Washington Post.

Gubernatorial candidates Pete Wilson and Dianne Feinstein say they have known each other only 20 years or so, but I don't believe it. I think they are, in some mystical way, twins separated at birth, to use a phrase popularized by Spy magazine.

Feinstein and Wilson are the same age (57), the same height (5-feet-10), probably about the same weight (data in this category is heavily classified) and apparently agree on nearly every major national and international issue.

Both established their political reputations as mayors of major port cities (San Francisco and San Diego) with relatively high-income populations. Both have long been at odds with activists in their own parties because they take mainstream positions (pro-death penalty for Feinstein, pro-abortion rights for Wilson) that clash with their party organizations' innermost desires. Both grew up in affluent homes, attended prestigious private high schools and colleges (Convent of the Sacred Heart and Stanford for Feinstein; St. Louis Country Day School and Yale for Wilson) and soon began careers in public service and government. Each has been divorced once (Feinstein has also been widowed). Each happily remarried in the early 1980s to younger, wealthier spouses.

Most of these are superficial similarities, I agree, but look what happened when The Times tried to find contrasts in the basic Feinstein and Wilson approaches to life and work. The stories were models of depth, detail and aggressive reporting, but the habits revealed were so similar that the copy editor struggled to avoid the same headline on each story: "Feinstein's Deliberative Style Tempers Decisions" said one headline. "Deliberate Wilson Relies on Experts, Longtime Aides" said the other. Wilson "pursues a process that is thorough, wide-ranging, painstaking in detail and often frustrating to those who know him best," said one story. Feinstein, said the other, is distinguished by "her near-obsession with detail, with finding answers to searching questions about the issue at hand, even if that means appearing to publicly dawdle." If American politics did not have two parties and human reproduction did not require two sexes, there might not be any fundamental differences between them at all.

Californians spend more money on polls, 30-second television spots and consultant fees than any other state. Perhaps all this money and effort has produced the formula for the ideal candidate--the balanced personality and cautious intellect guaranteed to guide any multilayered economy and multiethnic electorate smoothly and efficiently into the next century.

Then why aren't we happier about it? The primary turnout was low, and the general election is not expected to be much better. After complaining for years about mediocre candidates and low-brow campaigns, why are we so unmoved by this bipartisan success at providing everything an intelligent, moderate voter might want? Is what we really want a race we can argue about with our neighbors?

Feinstein and Wilson deny, with their usual polite and well-chosen words, that they are that much alike. Feinstein is for the Big Green environmental initiative; Wilson is not. Wilson supports the Proposition 140 limits on legislative terms; Feinstein does not. Wilson is Methodist, Feinstein Jewish. Feinstein drinks cranapple juice, Wilson sips Tab.

But those differences just prove the rule. I cannot think of any gubernatorial race in the past 30 years with two candidates better equipped for office by temperament, intellect and experience. Approaching the ballot box, I know that the state will be well-led whichever one wins. I just wonder why the act of choosing no longer seems to be much fun.

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