Fong-Boxer race: one to watch

October 18, 1998|By George F. Will

SACREMENTO, CALIF. — SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Republican drive for 60 senators -- a filibuster-proof majority -- might involve this possible carom shot: If Republican Matt Fong, California's treasurer, pulls well ahead of Sen. Barbara Boxer, that might help elect Republican senators in, say, Nevada, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Big, populous California has many expensive media markets, so campaigns devour dollars by the bushels. A close California race will siphon Republican dollars from around the country, right up to Election Day. California campaigns can spend $1 million in a few days. But $3 million -- an extra million behind Republican Senate candidates in South Carolina, Nevada and Kentucky -- might switch three currently Democratic seats.

Hence the national importance of the fact that Mr. Fong may be pulling ahead of Ms. Boxer. She had the misfortune to draw a problematic foe -- a person who is a minority, pro-choice and was adopted as an infant.

Ms. Boxer is one of the two most vulnerable incumbent senators. The other is Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun, another product of 1992, the "Year of the Woman," when feminist orthodoxy involved emphasizing the significance of Anita Hill, not, as now, the insignificance of Monica Lewinsky.

Golden year

In 1992, a good Democratic year, Bill Clinton was strong in California and Ms. Boxer ran in tandem with Dianne Feinstein, who was running for the remaining two years of the Senate seat vacated by Pete Wilson. Ms. Boxer got 48 percent (Ms. Feinstein got 54) and won partly because of a last-minute charge that her opponent visited naughty nightclubs. A rather pastel offense that, considering the primary colors of President Clinton's sexual repertoire. Concerning which, Ms. Boxer seemed a tad slow in bringing her indignation up to its usual boil.

Ms. Boxer has been called the Democrats' Jesse Helms -- the senator best at bringing Republicans to a boil. She lives across San Francisco Bay in Marin County, where political paleontologists go to study the fossilized remains of liberalism. Because of her "environmental" views -- on water and property rights -- she is even less popular than the Environmental Protection Agency in the Central Valley, where a Democrat running statewide needs to do reasonably well to counter GOP strength in Orange and San Diego counties.

California is pro-choice and a bubbling bouillabaisse of immigrants, so Democrats often try to portray Republicans as misogynistic racists. Although he's pro-choice, Mr. Fong's reasoning is intellectual linguine -- a terrific tangle -- but politically serviceable: In 1992, Ms. Boxer won women by 13 percent but this year her lead is, Mr. Fong says, in single digits.

Mr. Fong says Roe v. Wade is terrible constitutional law, but should not be overturned. (His argument turns on respecting Supreme Court precedents. But that would dictate support for the Dred Scott decision, and opposition to Brown v. Board of Education.) Like most Californians (but unlike Ms. Boxer), he opposes partial-birth abortion and federal funding of abortion and favors parental consent for a minor's abortion. He says "I'm glad my mother chose life," but he wants first trimester abortions -- 95 percent of abortions -- to remain legal.

And Mr. Fong, whose mother by adoption was California's secretary of state for 20 years, springs from California's richest and fastest growing minority. Asian Americans are about 5 percent of the state's voters. In the primary, San Francisco's Asian Americans voted 80 percent for Democratic gubernatorial candidates, but 76 percent for Mr. Fong.

Another arrow in the Democrats' quiver, the charge that Republicans are "extremists," is blunted by Mr. Fong's preternatural dullness when presenting his views. Extracted from his sometimes murky syntax, they actually mark him as one of the few congressional candidates talking about issues that are Congress' business. He does talk about crime and education -- local concerns -- but also stresses national security issues.

Military man

An Air Force Academy graduate and lieutenant colonel in the reserves, he favors increasing the defense budget, scrapping the ABM treaty, signed 26 years ago with an entity now extinct (the Soviet Union), and deploying missile defenses. Ms. Boxer is one of 41 senators, all Democrats, who blocked consideration of a bipartisan resolution "to deploy as soon as is technologically possible" missile defenses.

Promiscuous threats of filibusters have produced an extra-constitutional supermajority requirement: Almost nothing important comes from Congress without the support of 60 senators. The cost of Mr. Fong's attempt to join Republican senatorial ranks has required him to attend 150 fund-raising events since Aug. 1 and he often does eight or more a day.

This is life under campaign finance "reforms" requiring candidates to raise money in dribs and drabs not exceeding $1,000. Senator Fong would favor rescuing the First Amendment from such abridgements of speech. Sound fellow.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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