THIS IS THE winter of Don Schaefer's discontent. He's in one of his depressions. The Nov. 6 election results sent him into a funk that has persisted. Even worse, there will be more bad news in the last five weeks of 1990. By Christmas, Mr. Schaefer could be shouting ''bah, humbug!'' louder than Dickens' Scrooge.
To the uninitiated, this gubernatorial grousing doesn't make sense. Mr. Schaefer was reelected Nov. 6 in yet another landslide for the veteran mayor and governor. He got nearly 60 percent of the vote in a year when many incumbents were rudely tossed out by an angry electorate.
That would be a considerable achievement for most politicians. But not Donald Schaefer. His cheerleaders had set such high expectations he was bound to be disappointed. They figured 70 percent of the vote -- maybe even 75 percent -- would be a fitting endorsement of Mr. Schaefer's accomplishments. That's the kind of ''last hurrah'' monument they wanted for him.
It was pie-in-the-sky. Only the legendary Louis L. Goldstein gets such numbers (72 percent this year) in an era of voter discontent.
Yet Mr. Schaefer saw his 59.6-percent landslide not as a triumph but as a defeat. His opponent, Bill Shepard, was able to claim that he had run better than any Republican candidate for governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966.
Mr. Schaefer lost more than half the state's counties, including all but two on the Eastern Shore, three of four in Western Maryland and Carroll and Anne Arundel counties in Central Maryland.
What especially galled the governor was that he had spent hundreds of millions of dollars and enormous amounts of time and energy trying to pump up the economies of the state's
western and eastern counties. And what thanks did he get? A punch in the nose.
The governor still doesn't understand that much of the Shepard vote came from the anti-incumbent sentiment afoot. Nor is he willing to accept the fact that a large number of Marylanders are turned off by his ''do-it-now'' fetish, his pouting emotionalism and his often lavish way of running the government.
They were sending him a message on Election Day, but not one that would jeopardize Mr. Schaefer's tenure in Annapolis.
It isn't likely that William Donald Schaefer, at age 69, will suddenly change his modus operandi. Yet he is trying to comprehend what the voters now expect of him.
By nature, Mr. Schaefer likes to set ambitious goals and then drive his team to achieve them. That's how he ran his first term as governor. Big projects, such as the twin stadium complex, the light-rail transit line and a revamping of the state's entire higher // education system were top accomplishments. But in a period of economic recession, such undertakings won't be possible in the years ahead.
Instead, Mr. Schaefer faces many painful and heart-wrenching decisions.
The state's deficit in the current fiscal year could eventually approach $400 million if the recession hits hard. That means more rounds of cuts to existing budgets, cuts that Mr. Schaefer will take personally. Marylanders in need, Marylanders with severe health problems, Marylanders seeking help will be turned away.
Programs that Mr. Schaefer's team had proudly put together or expanded will be stripped to the bone, if not eliminated. Layoffs of workers remain a distinct possibility. The protests and complaints of affected groups will come pouring into the governor's office. For someone who deeply cares about the impact of his decisions on people, this will be tough to take.
And when Mr. Schaefer hears the dismal state revenue estimates in December for the next fiscal year, he'll have to decide what other ''people programs'' must be eviscerated to balance the 1991 budget.
Current spending has to be chopped a whopping $200 million next year. There won't be enough new money to come close to covering inflationary operating expenses. And since 60 percent of the $6-billion general fund budget is mandated by law, the governor's options on trimming expenses are limited.
That's not a very joyful Christmas present for Mr. Schaefer to unwrap. No wonder he's chewing out the press, ordering his cabinet and staffers to write out letters of resignation, bemoaning the loss of his friends in the legislature and in local governments, complaining about the voters' lack of appreciation for all he's done for them.
DTC Plotting a course through the perilous shoals of a recession isn't easy for any elected leader. It is even more difficult for Mr. Schaefer, who wears his heart on his sleeve. Each time the ship of state hits rough seas or bumps against the rocky bottom, the governor will feel the pain and anguish of his crew members. He's in for a rough and unpleasant journey in the months ahead.