Undaunted by the last presidential election, in which liberalism was turned into a political dirty word, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa runs as an attack candidate armed with an undiluted, unapologetic liberalism.
At a Democratic luncheon at the Timonium Fairgrounds yesterday, Harkin urged Democrats to be "strong for who we are and what we believe," as he outlined a massive program of building infrastructure to revive the American economy.
"Don't tell me we can't do it because we've done it before," Harkin said, recalling the public works projects of Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression. "We have nothing to apologize for."
Harkin spoke before about 1,200 Democrats at a $25-a-head fund-raiser for the Maryland Democratic Party. Nathan Landow, the state party chairman, said it was a day to "bring Democrats together to start looking toward 1992." The Maryland presidential primary will assume more importance this year, Landow said, because it falls on March 3, before the Super Tuesday round of primaries that may knock many candidates from the race.
The only other presidential candidate at the event was Larry Agran, a former mayor of Irvine, Calif. He wants to divert half the defense budget -- about $150 billion -- to schools, health care, deficit reduction and local government.
It took a dedicated Democrat to leave televised sports and the Clarence Thomas hearings for a barbecue meal and country rock music at the fairgrounds. Even among these partisans, the candidates had not yet defined themselves.
"I haven't had enough time to decide who I'm going to back," said Jean Eyer, who works for the Baltimore County Register of Wills and plans to run for delegate to the party nominating convention. But she had some surface impressions. She was interested in Harkin, but professed herself to be waiting for the candidate who has flirted with running since 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
But Gov. William Donald Schaefer warned that times in America are too dire for anyone interested in the presidency to be saying, "I may run, I may not."
Schaefer denounced what he saw as a decline of civic virtue, of faith in the political process, of support for programs for the poor.
"Things can't get any. . . ," he said, but thought better of suggesting that bad times had bottomed out. "Well, they can," he said, and walked away from the podium.
Such predictions are Harkin's cue for beaming a high-voltage message of activist government.
Harkin said that after eight years of a Harkin administration, the nation would be able to boast the best highway and mass transit system in the world, the best schools, increased home ownership and a nationalized health-care system to cover everyone. "It's time to rebuild America, using American workers, American products and keep our money here at home," he said.
Harkin didn't discuss spending cuts or taxes in his speech, but afterward said he would pay for his plans with deep cuts in the military and higher taxes on rich people.
Attempting to undo previous Republican success in portraying the GOP as the party of American values, Harkin recited a list of his beliefs: in work and frugality, God and family, public responsibility and care for the poor. His fire and brimstone liberalism won moderate applause.
Bill and Nancy Lauer of Ellicott City said the Democrats would need a fighter in 1992, though this speech had not clinched their support.
"People in the United States have got the impression that the Democratic Party is a bunch of wimps, that we're not going to go to the wall on the issues," said Bill Lauer, a cabinet-maker and union leader. "I'm looking for the kind of candidate who will have that kind of fight."