LOS ANGELES -- Sen. Pete Wilson and former San Francisco mayor 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.
California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Feinstein and her Republican opponent, Wilson, were chosen after extensive consultations and expensive primary elections as the best representatives of their parties' differing constituencies in the race for the most powerful state office in the country. Yet they are the same age (57), the same height (5-10), probably about the same weight (data in this category is heavily classified) and apparently agree on nearly every major national and international issue.
Feinstein and Wilson 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; Saint 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 spouses younger and wealthier than themselves.
Most of these are superficial similarities, I agree, but watch what happened when the Los Angeles Times, the West's largest and best endowed newspaper, tried to find contrasts in the basic Feinstein and Wilson approaches to life and work.
The story on Feinstein by Cathleen Decker and the one on Wilson by Bill Stall were models of depth, detail and aggressive reporting, but the habits revealed were so similar that the Times copy editor struggled to avoid running 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, Stall said, "pursues a process that is thorough, wide-ranging, painstaking in detail -- and often frustrating to those who know him best." Feinstein, Decker said, 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."
The Orange County Register, probing their personal tastes, found both candidates endorsed "hard work" as the secret to their success, and both thought an ideal day off included sleeping late and watching movies on the VCR.
Had enough? 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.
It is an assumption bordering on a cliche' that we Californians like to think ourselves ahead of the curve, eager to show the rest of the country what it will be eating, drinking and voting for in a year or two. 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 the golden mean, the goal of political philosophers for three millennia, a dead end? 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 would support limits on legislative terms; Feinstein does not. Wilson is Methodist, Feinstein Jewish. Feinstein drinks cranapple juice, while Wilson sips Tab. But look closely at those differences, and they turn mushy -- exceptions that 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 the state will be well led whichever one wins. I just wonder why the act of choosing no longer seems to be much fun.
The writer is The Post's West Coast correspondent.