What's this? Democrats in black tie?

December 17, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MARYLAND Republicans have learned that the best way to beat the Democrats is to act like them.

And in the joyous jumble that is politics, Maryland Republicans were gloating over suddenly becoming a major-league political party while the state's Democrats were putting on their tuxedos to celebrate the worst defeat in their history.

Democrats in black tie, for crying out loud? Democrats and tuxedos go together like Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms, like Donald Trump and Donald Duck. The tuxedo is the uniform for Junior League teas and debutante balls, not for junkyard politics. Democrats are the party of Roseanne and Bart Simpson.

But Democratic hierarchs nonetheless felt they had a lot to cheer about. Two weeks after the election, they assembled in a glitzy downtown hotel to pay tribute to themselves. At $250 a clip, they toasted the fact that Gov. William Donald Schaefer lost 13 counties in the general election. And they could brag that three county executive jobs went down the tubes to the GOP. The Democrats lost a congressional seat, bringing the Republicans up to three, and the GOP picked up 11 seats in the General Assembly for a total of 34. Cheers!

So it's ironic that while Schaefer considers himself to be everyman, the party of the people -- and Schaefer -- dresses as if it's New Year's Eve and struts its stuff in black tie and power cologne. What we have here is a serious case of the old reverse English. Democrats are behaving like Republicans and Republicans are acting as if they're Democrats. But the Republicans have learned one fundamental lesson, and it is this: They have mastered the mechanics of election-day politics.

In what has always been considered a one-party state, they've discovered not only how to register voters, but how to get them out on election day as well. And they know how to use absentee ballots like silver bullets. More to the point, they've learned how to tap into voter discontent.

It used to be that Democrats voted early and often. By contrast, the numerically superior Democratic Party has not only forgotten how to marshal its voters, but even when Democrats do turn out, they're more inclined to vote Republican. The winning Republican candidates were propped up by Democratic voters. Party apparatchiks did little to help Schaefer on election day.

The leaders of Maryland's Democratic Party have apparently forgotten that the wretched excesses of the '80s are over, that in the lean '90s Mitch Snyder is more of a hero than Ivan Boesky or Donald Trump or even Michael Milken. For a Democratic gathering these days, faded jeans and plaid flannel shirts are more appropriate dress than tuxedos.

Maryland Democrats are suffering from a near terminal case of split-image politics. While party leaders get all gussied up to toast their failures, Schaefer is stewing in Annapolis over a $423 million deficit that may cost 1,800 state workers their jobs and may force cuts in funds for the homeless, welfare clients and Medicare patients. The Democratic Party is even out of synch with its nominal leader.

These days, it's almost a jarring note to hear Democrats boast of being the party of working men and women. If that's the case, why are all of those working men and women raising hell about the taxes they're paying -- and voting Republican to boot?

When Democrats talk about working men and women, they're talking about Democrats of a generation or two ago. They're dead, old, don't give a damn or conservative and living in the suburbs and voting Republican. And the last time most of them put on tuxedos was probably for their weddings. Organized labor long ago lost political control of its rank-and-file members.

Democratic Party leaders are suffering from an identity crises. They're dressing like the Duke of Windsor but trying to talk like Roseanne. And while they're spreading nonsense about representing working men and women, Maryland Republicans are already laying out a strategy to make even further gains in 1992.

It's simply a case of mistaken identity. Black-tie Democrats are really Republicans turned inside out.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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