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Who's Up? Who's Down? Who Cares?

February 23, 2001|BILL WHALEN | Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow, was a speechwriter for former Gov. Pete Wilson

As the California Republican Party prepares to gather in Sacramento this weekend for its spring convention, I can't shake the image of Festivus. Remember Festivus? That was the alternative to Christmas and Hanukkah invented by the father of "Seinfeld's" most irritating layabout, George Costanza.

What brought Festivus to mind was its rituals, its "airing of grievances" (not unlike GOP convention panel discussions) and its "feats of strength" contest.

But whereas Festivus was good for a laugh, the road ahead for California Republicans is no laughing matter. Just ahead, there is redistricting, which in California the Democrats, who control both the state Assembly and the Senate, will dominate. Then there's the 2002 elections, in which, historically, the party that controls the White House takes a beating.

Even more frustrating for the GOP is the state's electricity crisis. Not, from a party point of view, the crisis itself, which as any Democrat will point out had its roots in Republican Pete Wilson's administration. What's frustrating for Republicans is the way Gov. Gray Davis' pathetic handling of it hasn't stuck to him the way GOP loyalists had anticipated or hoped. According to the latest L.A. Times Poll, almost half of Californians approve of the governor's handling of the power shortage. How can this be?

There will be no shortage this weekend of theories and airings of grievances about that. Some Republicans will say it's because Davis, with all his power plant touring, has managed to look like he's doing something. Others will say it's because people don't believe there really is a crisis because "stage three alerts" have come to seem like one more quirk of California living, like smog reports.

So what's a Republican to do? There's always the dream of another Gipper, otherwise known as Arnold-mania. But until Arnold Schwarzenegger actually stars in a political version of "The Running Man," he's nothing more than a GOP pipe dream.

Republicans could better use this weekend as a starting point for the other part of the Festivus equation: feats of strength. Instead of salivating over the possibility that the state's energy mess could seriously damage Davis' reelection hopes, they could come up with ways to help businesses weather the power crunch. They could figure out things to do about the state's housing shortage, which has a huge impact on the ability of businesses to succeed in the state. They could attack issues like traffic congestion or the inequities in our education system, which affect our state's business climate.

Taking on the issues instead of kvetching about who's-up-who's-down party politicking would be a start for the California GOP in its quest to recapture the state's vital center. And the need to do that is something on which all Republicans can agree.

In other words, instead of the convention being a Festivus-like airing of grievances, let's work on those feats of strength. That would provide, as Costanza's father said on "Seinfeld," "a Festivus for the rest of us."

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