After Backing a Loser, Does Schaefer Have Any Friends Left?

November 08, 1992|By JOHN W. FRECE

The event flashed with such brilliance it seemed important.

The Democratic governor of Maryland suddenly, unexpectedly jets off to a St. Louis suburb to endorse the re-election of the Republican president of the United States just four days before the election.

Maryland Democrats, stunned that the titular head of their party would do such a thing, express outrage.

Maryland Republicans, stunned to receive help from such an unwanted source, express embarrassment, as if slapped by some backhanded compliment.

Hardly anyone -- except for possibly Gov. William Donald Schaefer, President Bush, Republican Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley and the president's campaign aides -- thinks the endorsement is a good idea. Even members of the governor's staff privately confess they see the move as politically foolish.

It appears to have had no effect, locally or nationally, on the election itself. "The defection of Maryland's maverick Democratic governor . . . made no difference" regarding Maryland's vote, the New York Times concluded. (And, for the record, Mr. Clinton carried Missouri, the only state where Mr. Schaefer campaigned for him, by 10 percentage points.)

Now the questions are: Will such an impetuous act have any shelf-life? With Bill Clinton sweeping into office, will Maryland somehow pay for such a political indiscretion? Will the Democratic-controlled state legislature feel obliged to retaliate? Will Mr. Schaefer himself suffer some direct diminution of power?

The answers seem to be: Not likely.

Mr. Schaefer may get away with this politically treasonous act because his instincts tell him Mr. Clinton will not be vindictive against a state that otherwise has been so supportive; because it is hard to damage a relationship with the legislature that was soured long ago; and because his own future political options are already so limited.

The governor's lonely sojourn to Missouri already looks more like a comet that streaked across the national political sky and vanished than it does like some permanent realignment of the stars. There remains only the afterglow memory of how weird it all seemed.

* The governor's endorsement of Mr. Bush probably will have no effect on the state's relationship with the new Clinton administration.

Virtually all of the state's other Democratic office holders were in Mr. Clinton's camp. The Clinton campaign in Maryland was directed by Larry Gibson, friend and political adviser to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and the mayor even joined Tuesday's victory celebration in Little Rock.

"A number of us have been for Clinton for a long period of time," said Maryland Congressman Steny H. Hoyer, fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some Maryland Democrats stuck with the Arkansas governor even when it appeared his candidacy was "not viable," he said, adding, "I think he'll work very closely with us."

After all, it is a state's congressional delegation -- not its governor -- that normally deals with the president or handles a state's federal issues.

"The Maryland delegation has always been effective helping our state," said Kenneth E. Manella, director of Maryland's Washington office. "I know they could work well with the new administration."

* The endorsement probably will have minimal effect on the governor's relationship with the General Assembly.

Some delegate or senator is sure to stand up to say he is voting for or against a certain bill because of Mr. Schaefer's brief defection to the GOP, but that is more likely to be an excuse rather than the real reason for a particular vote.

The economy is so bad right now that the governor has little money to throw at programs or projects anyway, which means there will be fewer targets at which angered Democrats could aim their wrath.

"At this point, the governor's programs are being judged on their merit, not on the political influence he may or may not have," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat. "These are not the days where a stadium bill or light rail bill comes in by virtue of gubernatorial muscle."

* Everyone realizes Mr. Schaefer is about to leave the political stage in a couple years anyway, so what does it matter?

The governor, who turned 71 Monday, is a lame duck with only two sessions remaining. Legislative and congressional redistricting are over. At this stage of a second term, any governor's role is diminished. He still controls some patronage appointments, but with little money and a new generation of state leaders already jockeying to take his place, Mr. Schaefer's clout is ebbing.

Increasingly, no one will care who he endorsed in '92.

If Mr. Bush had unexpectedly won, it might have been different. The governor said he neither asked for nor was offered anything in exchange for his endorsement. But who knows? In a second Bush term, Mr. Schaefer's courage might have been considered of ambassadorship quality. Even with a Clinton victory, the governor might collect a few favors before Mr. Bush leaves office.

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