California Republicans smiled and patted each other on the back Sunday, having taught themselves a lesson they called "conflict management."
That is, they managed to avoid airing long and divisive conflicts among themselves over fiery and familiar issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control. In the past, these have been matters that often painted GOP conventions as a forum for single-issue zealots.
As the state GOP concluded its three-day spring convention, perhaps the most surprising development was that the 900 delegates voiced not a word of dissent in approving a declaration that limits the participation of homosexual groups in party affairs. The secret, explained by party chairman Frank Visco, is to make the statements innocuous.
Conservative leaders, led by Rep. William Dannemeyer of Fullerton, have been lobbying and maneuvering for months to purge a gay GOP club from official party recognition. Gay leaders and the party's civil libertarian elements have fought back gamely, saying the GOP was big enough for all kinds of voters.
The matter was settled, seemingly to everyone's satisfaction, with the crafting of a resolution stating that GOP clubs should not be recognized if their charter is "based upon sexual orientation or based on the promotion or advocacy of any particular sexual life style."
Dannemeyer and allies pronounced themselves pleased. But he acknowledged the policy statement would have no effect on any group now part of the state GOP, because no club charter contains reference to sexual orientation.
The strongly anti-gay congressman added, though, that he believes the resolution will stop the party from making any overtures to homosexual groups.
Stephen M. Kinney, regional political director for the Republican National Committee, said the painless compromise proved the party's determination to get serious this election year. "More and more, we're understanding that internal squabbling doesn't help us," he said.
Others called it part of the GOP's new "conflict management."
Also approved by the convention without debate were resolutions declaring that homosexuals should not receive special civil rights protection from the government based on sexual orientation, as well as a measure objecting to any public school counseling program that "suggests that homosexuality is a positive alternative lifestyle."
Meanwhile, conservatives who object to gun control did not even make a showing at the convention, and both sides in the bitter fight over abortion quietly accepted a delay until the party's next convention in July to argue that matter.
In a victory for Gov. George Deukmejian, the convention endorsed a June ballot proposition seeking a gasoline tax increase to pay for highway improvements. Although he has opposed tax increases throughout most of his political career, Deukmejian is a leading advocate of the higher gasoline tax.
While there was consensus at the convention, Republicans found themselves short on another important ingredient for political success: excitement.
Their candidate for governor, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, worked for hours on a speech Saturday night in which he attempted to energize the party faithful. But it was greeted with perfunctory applause, and interviews with more than a dozen random delegates immediately afterward failed to find a single one who could recall something inspirational or memorable that he had said.
The speech was devoted largely to themes that have become almost generic to the GOP. Wilson asserted it is the party of the flag and "not those who would desecrate the flag."
He also said: "We are the party that wants criminals handcuffed by police, not the police handcuffed by a criminal justice system. . . . The best social program is a job. . . . We will not tolerate California under siege to rapists and thugs and drug dealers. . . . We are the party that seeks excellence in education. . . ."
Wilson aides said the purpose of the message was to reaffirm the party's conservative ideals, not break new ground.