His Decision was Classy and Right in Character

PETER A. JAY

November 15, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- The deep thinkers in Maryland's Democratic establishment believe they have come up with an exquisite revenge upon Governor William Donald Schaefer for his quixotic eleventh-hour endorsement of George Bush. They could right, but don't bank on it.

The idea is not to denounce the governor, but to ignore him. He is now a lame duck and irrelevant, so why dignify his unexpected bolt from the ranks by emphasizing it? Forget him. Mr. Bush lost, and Maryland went for Bill Clinton. The endorsement's history, and soon the governor will be too.

That's fine, and it makes some sense. But before he fades away, here from the suburban jungle comes a modest little cheer for Mr. Schaefer. His decision was classy and right in character. My guess is that most Marylanders who aren't professionally engaged in politics were pleased to see the governor being himself and going his own way; it may not be saying much, but he was probably more popular after the endorsement than before.

This has nothing to do with the relative merits of Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton. What disturbs many people about politics and politicians is the spectacle of partisan platoons marching in lock-step. To voters accustomed to making thoughtful and sometimes difficult choices at election time, the idea of party loyalty is more than a little nauseating.

In my own view, which is that of a confirmed Reagan Democrat and 1992 Perotester, a vote for George Bush this year was indeed a vote thrown away, while a vote for Bill Clinton was risky but reasonable. But that's only my view. Mr. Schaefer's view was different, and I was delighted he had the courage to express it, rather than abiding by the dreary consensus of Democratic functionaries lining up to board the bandwagon.

In Maryland, there's plenty of precedent for high-level party disobedience. In 1966, both our Democratic U.S. senators joined with The Sun and a majority of Maryland voters in supporting Spiro T. Agnew, a Republican, over George P. Mahoney, a Democrat. That may seem peculiar to those who remember only that Mr. Agnew was later a vice president who resigned in disgrace, but at the time he was the clear choice of the politically correct.

Theodore R. McKeldin, the last mayor of Baltimore before Mr. Schaefer to become governor of Maryland, was constantly at odds with his party. He was a Republican, but he spoke fluent Democrat, and as he liked to win elections he tended to speak it a lot.

But why, exactly, should Mr. Schaefer, in the name of loyalty, have kept his presidential preference to himself? It can be argued, I suppose, that because if he hadn't been a Democrat he wouldn't ever have won election. And when he did win, therefore, he incurred a permanent obligation.

On the other hand, by the time he first ran for governor, he was popular enough to have won with any party label. His party, which has maintained the preferred spot at the patronage trough because of his last two elections, owes him at least as much as he owes to it. The party leadership, clearly, knows that, which is why the clamor over his Bush endorsement has been held to a minimum.

Democrats believe in principle that it's preferable to be inside the government's counting house than outside. The moral high ground has a nice view, but it's apt to be cold and lonely there, and those on the heights make inviting targets.

It'll be fun to see what Mr. Schaefer decides to do next. He might, like Mr. McKeldin, want to return to Baltimore for a final term as mayor after having served as governor, but it's unlikely he'll have that opportunity. Or, if Rep. Ben Cardin were to run for governor, Mr. Schaefer could seek his Baltimore congressional seat.

Might he drop the other shoe and actually become a Republican? That seems unlikely right now, though it's an interesting idea -- and another reason the shrillest anti-Schaefer voices in the Democratic ranks have been so effectively throttled. Those who were most outraged to see him endorse a Republican certainly don't want to see him register as one.

If the outgoing governor did switch parties, he could run against Paul Sarbanes for the Senate in 1994. Mr. Sarbanes is spavined from his long service and ready to be retired, but it would probably take a younger and crisper candidate than Mr. Schaefer to perform that service for Maryland. (Republican Representative Connie Morella, a Montgomery County liberal, isn't the answer either. The Republicans will have to find someone with a much sharper edge, such as Ellen Sauerbrey, the minority leader in the House of Delegates.)

This whither-Don conjecture is probably all thistledown. The real likelihood is that after 1994 this wacky, irritating, dedicated, talented, emotional, extraordinary man will be out of politics and into a forced retirement he'll absolutely hate. Then he'll be able to endorse anyone he wants without causing a fuss, and he'll surely hate that even more.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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