SAN FRANCISCO -- Democracy's melodious thunder rolls the length of this state, which is rich in rival distractions. The gubernatorial candidates, Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein, are tugging at the state's sleeve, competing for attention with two ballot propositions to which their candidacies are linked.

"Big Green" is a radical salad of environmental measures. Proposition 140 would limit the number of terms state legislators and statewide officers could serve. Wilson supports Proposition 140, which will pass; he opposes Big Green, which probably will fail narrowly. Feinstein takes the opposite positions, thereby undermining her two themes: that she represents change for the state and a changed Democratic Party.

Opposition to term limits is intellectually defensible but potentially ruinous for Feinstein. It is the position of the Sacramento establishment, which is in particularly bad odor just now after protracted budget bickering as bad as Washington's. Opposition to term limits is the passion of Willie Brown, a Democrat who is in his 26th year in the state legislature and is assembly speaker.

Brown, a San Franciscan, is gifted, charming, brassy, liberal -- an anathema to most Republicans, many independents and some Democrats, especially in Southern California, where most voters live.

The Democratic Party's principal handicap today is the perception that it is the party of government -- that its two most loyal groups are government employees and blacks. Many Americans think of those groups as dispensers and recipients of government largess. Brown, who is black, may be America's last political boss. Feinstein's loyalty to him is an admirable reciprocity, but it puts her candidacy of "change" in opposition to today's favorite formulation of change -- the compulsory rotation of elective offices.

Just six years ago, Jeane Kirkpatrick's Philippic to the 1984 Republican Convention chastised Democrats in a universally understood shorthand, referring to them in their convention city: "San Francisco Democrats." Feinstein's first task was to prove that she was not another warmhearted but woolly-headed liberal. This she did by aggressively flunking the liberal litmus test: She supports capital punishment.

Remember Michael Dukakis's bloodless maundering against capital punishment -- in response to a question about how he would feel if his wife were brutalized? Here is Feinstein referring to the killer of two teenagers: "He blew their brains out. Then he ate their hamburgers. I feel it down to my boots: If I do nothing else, I'm going to make this a safe state."

Echoing California's most successful politician, she asks: "Is there anyone here who feels safer than you did 10 years ago?" Ten years ago, Reagan's formulation was: Do you feel "better off"? It is a measure of American regression that "safer" has supplanted the milder, more hopeful "better off" as the public's elemental aspiration.

Yet at a moment when skepticism about governmental competence is acute, she supports Big Green, a legislative leap in the dark. It would be a bonanza for lawyers who would fatten on litigation about its ramifications. And it might be the longest suicide note in history, killing California's prosperity.

Big Green is 39 single-spaced typewritten pages clotted with 16,000 words, many of them technical terms. No one knows the cost of its proscription of any pesticides ever found to cause, in whatever doses, cancer or reproductive harm. No one knows the cost of reducing by 40 percent in 20 years emissions of "any gases which may contribute, directly or indirectly, to global warming." The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power puts the cost of that -- one provision of Big Green; the cost to one department of one city -- at $6 billion.

Big Green and Feinstein are being hurt by the public's deepening sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. Wilson is being hurt by the Bush administration's ten-thumbedness that is deepening anxiety and destroying Republican claims to competence and distinctiveness.

Wilson is a cautious conservative with interesting wrinkles. He is a passionate advocate of early intervention in the lives of poor children. (He calls prenatal care the most cost-effective spending government does.) To reduce by just one pupil the average class size in California costs $1 billion, so he offends the public-education establishment by favoring alternative credentialing: involve high-school honor students in teaching, for example.

But he, like Feinstein, finds his most thoughtful ideas drowned out by the thunderous campaigns about ballot propositions. Recourse to such ballot propositions represents rejection of the core principle of representative government: The people do not decide issues, they decide who shall decide. (In the autumn of 1988, $129 million was spent on proposition campaigns, more than three times the $40.2 million spent on all state legislative campaigns.)

Whoever goes as governor to Sacramento must get back to basics, restoring the primacy of representative government.