Missed Uneasiness, Inflated Expectations

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 08, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

Maryland's Democratic office holders blew it. In last week's presidential primary, they backed the wrong donkey -- and ended up looking like jackasses.

They were woefully out of touch with their constituents. Early-on, most Democratic leaders jumped on the Bill Clinton presidential bandwagon. He was the clear front-runner, and Democratic officials here wanted to be with the winner.

But in doing so, these politicians displayed the type of arrogance that has so infuriated the public: they made their endorsement of Governor Clinton before taking a careful reading of their voter-constituents.

Consequently, they failed to catch the uneasiness Marylanders have about the Arkansas governor and the enthusiasm quietly building for former Sen. Paul Tsongas.

They went with the more traditional Democrat, who mouthed the usual slogans for more jobs, an amorphous "middle class" tax cut and more social programs. They ignored the candidate who declared an "economic call to arms," favored business tax stimulants and promised "no Santa Claus" at budget time.

And these state Democratic leaders apparently persuaded the Clinton camp that Maryland could still be had by winning the black urban vote in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the union vote and the vote of the political organizations in most subdivisions.

Once again, they goofed. Baltimore and Washington suburbanites decided this election. They clearly preferred the new nostrums of the anti-politician Paul Tsongas over the blow-dried, media-cool candidate of the establishment pols.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke delivered the city for Mr. Clinton -- but by only 12,000 votes. It was a weak show that was easily erased by Mr. Tsongas in Baltimore County, which he won by 13,600 votes, and in Montgomery County, which he won by a whopping 27,000 votes.

In the decade of the 1990s, elections will be decided in the yuppiefied Baltimore-Washington suburbs, not in the city.

And the new politics of the suburbs are spreading. Mr. Tsongas won nearly all the true suburban counties and ran even in the "new suburbs." He lost Calvert County by 1 vote, Kent County by 3 votes, St. Mary's County by 9 votes and Queen Anne's County by 113 votes.

Add together the "mad-as-hell, won't-take-it-anymore" protest vote of Jerry Brown, the anti-traditional-Democratic-liberal vote of Paul Tsongas and the uncommitted vote, and a majority of Maryland Democrats made it clear they don't want politics as usual.

And if you believe the media experts, Republicans showed last Tuesday that they don't want politics as usual, either. Or at least, they don't want Bush-style politics.

"Bush can't shake Buchanan," screamed a banner headline in The Sun as though this were the most important election development. The subhead -- almost an after-thought -- read, "Tsongas, president win Maryland."

And how did the national political story begin? "President Bush's political woes deepened yesterday as his Republican challenger gained strength. . . ."

Is George Bush really in "deep doo-doo"?

The Buchanan protest vote was 30 percent in Maryland, 36 percent in Georgia and 30 percent in Colorado. About a third of the voting Republicans disagree with the incumbent president.

That's not bad in this cynical era, when Maryland's governor has an approval rating of only 18 percent and the president's approval rating is 34 percent. Yet even with this low rating, the president still won the votes of seven out of ten Maryland Republicans. In most elections, that's known as a strong mandate.

In fact, the Bush-protest vote is less than the protest votes against incumbent presidents in Maryland primaries in 1980 and 1976. Edward Kennedy polled 38 percent of the '80 primary vote against Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan polled 42 percent of the '76 vote against Gerald Ford. By comparison, the 30-percent Bush protest vote was modest.

Moreover, under Republican Party rules, the Buchanan threat is minimized. Mr. Bush should have the nomination wrapped this month and probably won't lose a single primary election. Mr. Buchanan may not even be able to have his name placed in nomination.

"Bush can't shake Buchanan"? So what else is new? Large protests are inevitable in the 1990s. It's a fact of life. There will always be a sizable protest vote. For instance, "uncommitted" drew 31 percent of the vote against Mr. Bush in South Dakota. The Buchanan vote is important only because the media are making it seem out of the ordinary -- and forcing Mr. Bush to make it important because image is so crucial in modern elections.

A 70-percent showing in Maryland's primary is an outright landslide. Yet we expect our top elected leaders to walk on water, to achieve unachievable electoral results, to perform like mythical heroes.

In reality, that never happens. When it doesn't, we slam our leaders for being less than perfect. Some of them can please 70 percent of their party's electorate -- and still be criticized for a dismal showing. Yet in the rough-and-tumble political leagues, .700 is a pretty good batting average. It might even be enough to win George Bush this season's batting title.

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