IT’S NOT MUCH of a stretch to note that our political parties have become particularly arid places of late. But judging from last week’s doings in Anaheim, rarely has a party seemed as bereft of ideas or vision as California’s Republicans appear to be these days.

California is a state of some 32 million people that is engaged in trade and commerce with every nation on Earth; whose economy and technologies are the envy of the world, and whose most talented people come from every corner of the globe, but whose public apparatus is in danger of not functioning at all. Meanwhile, one of its supposedly major parties is engaged in debates and is barely worthy of Boondock County back in the 1950s.

Consider just the following two examples:

In a state where one-fourth of the children come to school speaking some language other than English, the assembled rank and file of the GOP, resembling no one so much as King Canute ordering back the tide, line up behind a ballot measure that they believe would command these millions to learn, to speak and be spoken to in nothing but English. The only difference is that old Canute wasn’t really serious; he was only trying to make a point with his barons about hubris. That the proposed initiative does not totally prohibit bilingual instruction indeed, permits parents under very limited conditions to ask for it changes neither the political intent, the message, nor the symbolism.

The GOP, of course, has a commendable objective bilingual education badly needs fixing but in the form it’s been proposed, the proposed remedy holds little promise of long-term success, either pedagogical or political, as even some party leaders tried to warn their fellow delegates. No doubt the Democrats, who are nearly as barren of ideas, must be quietly cheering them on, savoring the prospect of yet another few hundred thousand Latinos marching to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office, signing their naturalization applications and thence affixing their names to the voter rolls. Perhaps in honor of its real spiritual father, this should be called the Bob Dornan Amendment. The Canutes of Anaheim really seem to like getting wet.

But the English-only idea is easily matched by another one on which the GOP seems to be even more unanimous, and that’s to support a ballot measure that would write into the California Constitution language that would permit the state (meaning these same wise men, and, no doubt, a few women too) to order any young woman under 18 to get permission from a parent in some cases, no doubt, the same adult who impregnated them before being allowed to have an abortion. Thus they would command sexual abstinence and close family ties and understanding. No language preference is stated for this bit of mandatory communication. Other things being equal, most of its backers would no doubt prefer a a sharp “no” in Hmong or Spanish over a warm “yes” in English.

Here the professed rationale is the theory of maturity that 16- or 17-year-old girls are not wise enough to make abortion decisions although of course the proposed measure presumes that these same teenagers would be mature enough to raise the children the state and their parents forced them to have. (If, that is, the law can command what it supposes and does not drive some substantial number to the coat-hanger abortionist instead.) Nor do the backers of this measure trouble themselves with the thought that a state that can empower parents to prohibit abortions in the name of maturity could also empower them to impose the termination of pregnancies that the elders or the state (as in China) do not want. If the uterus is the state’s to command, it can command any outcome it pleases.

But in both cases, what’s most striking is not the self-defeating stupidity of the course being pursued, but its irrelevance to the issues of the day. Here is a state that has a school system that limps behind the nation on virtually every measure, from computers to books to classroom construction, from the teaching of reading to the equipment of high school laboratories. Here is a state whose public universities, according to a Rand report issued on the very day the GOP was gathering in Anaheim, is about to be swamped by far more students than they are prepared to handle. There is thus, the Rand researchers said, “a time bomb under California’s social and economic foundations.”

In Anaheim, however, the most pressing school issue was bilingual education. How can we get rid of the hair on the wart of the hippopotamus? The Democrats, who blocked reasonable reforms in the state’s bilingual law in the legislative session just ended, are not, of course, blameless here, but in embracing the bilingual initiative, it is the GOP that is barking up the tree of social division. This was not a living political organization that met at Anaheim so much as it was a sort of museum party.

Maybe one shouldn’t be surprised at this. The instinct to hold back the tide runs deep, and, as we’ve seen in California over nearly two decades, each failed attempt to do so inevitably leads to more frustration and anger, triggering yet more severe and often bizarre attempts to restore things to some mythic golden past or to club those immigrants, labor unions, teenagers, whoever who are messing things up.

But rarely has it reached the absurd levels it did in the nearly all-white precincts of the Anaheim convention, where the featured speaker at a “Pride in Diversity” breakfast was Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth, whose most notable attribute has been her defense of gun-toting militias and her observation that “white men are an endangered species.” How apt for the party of memory to call in the member from Boondock County to tell it like it is. On Sunday, as the convention was winding up, a few blocks away, another group of also-rans, the Anaheim Angels, were finishing their season with a loss. But they at least know they have problems.

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