What He Is Not

October 20, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

COSTA MESA, CALIFORNIA — Costa Mesa, California. -- Perhaps Michael Huffington, who earned an engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard, really is intellectually inconsiderable when compared to the journalists and cartoonists currently condescending to him. However, that is not a truth Americans must hold to be self-evident.

Perhaps it is sinful, as Mr. Huffington's deplorers say, that his own money is financing his challenge to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. However, enough already of the adjective ''unprecedented'' when describing Mr. Huffington's spending.

The sensible measure of political spending is the amount spent relative to the state's voting-age population. In 1982 Mark Dayton used $6.9 million of his wealth (contributions to himself or loans made or guaranteed by himself) in a losing Senate race in Minnesota. In 1994 dollars, that amounts to $10.6 million, or $3.56 per Minnesotan of voting age. In 1984 West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller used $10.2 million ($14.5 million in today's dollars) winning a Senate seat at $10.12 (1994 dollars) per potential voter. In 1988 Wisconsin's Herbert Kohl used $6.9 million of his wealth ($8.6 million in 1994 dollars) winning a Senate seat at $2.44 per voter.

If Huffington spends $25 million of his own money, that will be $1.32 per voter. There was much less journalistic indignation about Messrs. Dayton, Kohl and Rockefeller than there is about Mr. Huffington. Messrs. Dayton, Kohl and Rockefeller are liberal Democrats.

''I am,'' says Mr. Huffington, ''a lot tougher than anyone gives me credit for.'' He will get such credit from Senator Feinstein, whose 29-point lead has evaporated. Certainly his skin is tough. To the herd of independent minds who are his critics in the media, he is enragingly serene about the herd's disapproval.

The New Yorker warns that an unnamed source says Mr. Huffington washes his hands frequently. Vanity Fair reports that ''rumors have swirled about his sexual preference'' and an unnamed gay source says of Mr. Huffington (the married father of two young girls), ''I wouldn't be amazed if he thought in a couple of directions.'' A New York Times columnist says that when Mr. Huffington was in President Reagan's Defense Department he was a ''lackluster bureaucrat.'' Perhaps the columnist has a list of lustrous bureaucrats.

For Senator Feinstein this is not a year to be living dangerously, so she is not presenting herself as what she is, the savvy operator who once said, ''Basically, my life is government.'' Rather, she is running as defender of the Republic against the Huffington menace, defined this way in one of her ads: ''The Associated Press reports that government records describe Mr. Huffington as secretive, threatening and greedy.'' Actually, the ''government records'' are papers submitted in a lawsuit by business competitors of Mr. Huffington.

When his detractors depart from anonymous and ad hominem attacks on him (and on his wife's religious views), they make the case for him that he makes on his own behalf. The detractors say he lacks both ''experience'' and a list of legislative achievements from his one term in Congress. Mr. Huffington responds: Fine. Everyone who admires the people experienced at making the government what it is, and who measure political virtue by legislative quantities, should vote for Mrs. Feinstein.

Mr. Huffington may win, not because of what he is but because of who he is not: her. She is a political careerist (this is her 13th time on a ballot) and much more liberal than he. It is terminologically peculiar, but true: Conservatives are the people most unhappy about the status quo. Those Californians whose principal complaint about government is that there is too little of it are Feinstein voters. They are pleased as punch that she just recently got passed a bill bringing 6 million acres of Southern California desert under federal ''protection.''

But out in Bakersfield the other day, a tepid Huffington supporter but ardent anti-Feinstein voter asked, ''How the hell do you harm a desert?'' Bakersfield is in Kern County, where a farmer is facing federal prosecution for killing rats of the Tipton kangaroo variety that enjoys federal reverence under the Endangered Species Act. The feds have seized the murder weapon, the farmer's tractor. Kern County is Huffington country.

In a sense, all the sturm and drang about this contest is disproportionate: One senator is 1 percent of one half of one branch of the federal government. However, come January a margin of one could decide which party organizes the Senate, thereby deciding who controls committee chairmanships and hence the legislative and investigatory agenda. So Mr. Huffington is not only Not Feinstein, he is Not Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, and Not Joe Biden as chairman of Judiciary. This is a good year to be defined as what you are not.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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