HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The presidential primary election campaign in Maryland brings back a lot of memories of another campaign 16 years ago, and some of them are unsettling to a voter trying hard to make up his mind in the spring of 1992.
In 1976, the Democratic powers-that-be let events get away from them, and before they knew it, the little-known Jimmy Carter was well on his way to winning the nomination. Many party big shots hated the prospect. Here in Maryland, Gov. Marvin Mandel went bananas. He threw his influence, which was then considerable, behind Jerry Brown.
It was a wonderful spectacle. Here were all the muldoons and practitioners of Old Politics lined up behind the New Age governor of California. Mike Lane of The Evening Sun drew one of the best political cartoons of all time, showing Governor Jerry as a robed St. Francis, with all the Maryland political animals -- Mr. Mandel, state Sen. Harry McGuirk, Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis and so forth -- fawning at his feet.
Of course, some of the animals weren't quite clear just who the anointed one was. I went to a political rally for the animal candidate in Fairmount Heights, and heard him extolled by Del. Decatur Trotter as "Mayor Brown." It didn't matter. Mr. Brown won the primary, giving Mr. Mandel a sort of last hurrah, but Mr.
Carter was nominated anyway.
Now it's 1992. This year, the candidate of both the old muldoons and the spiffy party pros is Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Congressmen Steny Hoyer and Ben Cardin are on board, of course. But Decatur Trotter, a state senator now, is torn. He tells the Wall Street Journal that while he's impressed with "this young man Clinton," he isn't quite sure about him.
In spite of the heavy support for Mr. Clinton by the Democratic establishment, or perhaps in some cases because of it, plenty of people share Mr. Trotter's doubts. Yet if the polls are right, and they might be in this case, this isn't because of Mr. Clinton's two most notable campaign stumbles. Most of us, it seems, don't take either the Gennifer Flowers dalliance or the long-ago draft-avoidance caper all that seriously.
What's much more worrisome is the sense that Mr. Clinton is too slick by half, and will say anything to anybody if he thinks it will help him politically. He appears to be a once-promising young man who has been seriously diminished, intellectually and spiritually, by the narrowness of his experience and the overwhelming force of his ambition.
So what are the alternatives for Maryland Democrats on Tuesday? Well, it seems to me that for the first time in some years there's a good one. I'm going to vote for Paul Tsongas, and I'm going to do it with considerable enthusiasm.
There are some personal reasons, as well as philosophical ones, for this enthusiasm, and no doubt they ought to be disclosed. Mr. Tsongas and I are within a few weeks of being the same age. We graduated from college the same year. While he was doing his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia, I was doing mine in Peru. Such parallels don't automatically lead to support for a candidate, but they help.
On the issues, it seems to me, Mr. Tsongas is talking more sense than any Democratic candidate since -- but I'll come back to that. I like his belief in free trade, and his refusal to clobber the Japanese for making desirable products and selling them competitively. I also like his recognition that the token tax cuts being pushed by some of his rivals won't help the economy, but that a capital-gains tax cut will.
His common-sense economic ideas may not be sharply different from some of those enunciated at times by George Bush, but unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Tsongas seems to have done some hard thinking about economics and come up with his own conclusions. He's aware that ideas matter, as well as the words they're dressed up in. If he means what he's been saying in this campaign, he could be a useful president for these times.
But it's a fact that as we come down to the election, I hear echoes of 1976, and some of them are disquieting. When I saw Mr. Tsongas and Jimmy Carter together on the front page of the New York Times last Sunday, I winced.
In 1976, I thought Mr. Carter infinitely preferable to Mr. Brown in the primary, and also to Gerald Ford (whom The Sun endorsed) in the general election. I voted for him each time with, er, enthusiasm. I saw him -- as I suppose Marvin Mandel and Mike Lane's other Brown-backing animals did too -- as a Democrat of a different kind, who really might change the party's tax-and-spend culture.
But although he tried, briefly, to change it, the Democratic
establishment ate Mr. Carter alive. He turned out to be the worst president of my lifetime, and like a good many other Democrats I know, I haven't voted for a member of my party for president since.
But this is early spring, when hope springs eternal, and so Tuesday morning I'll head for the firehouse in Level to vote for Mr. Tsongas, the outsider and potential force for change. I'll do it with enthusiasm, in a forward-looking manner, and try hard not to keep thinking back to those enthusiastic votes I cast in 1976.