Clinton, mayor alike -- bright, timid agonizers


June 17, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Kurt Schmoke and Bill Clinton -- kindred spirits, or what?

Both are Yalies, both Boomers, and both attractive, middle-of-the-road, earnest, relatively young Democrats. They are both, I believe, sincere about public service.

They are both bright -- not overly wise, but most definitely bright. They think things over. They mull things over. Then they agonize over everything.

And they both have a knack for proposing things -- sometimes even bold things -- then backing off, if not fully, at least a few steps at a time, suggesting an indecisiveness and cloudy vision that make their supporters squirm.

Clinton called a press conference Tuesday to try to fan away the clouds of doubt.

"There is no wavering," he had the nerve to say. "This is the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time on all the big issues that matter."

Well, a lot of people see it quite differently.

Did Clinton believe in new taxes for deficit reduction or new spending? Which was it? Or was it both? Did he think middle-class taxpayers should get a break, or not?

Did he believe in a government-funded jobs program? Did he think $72 billion in revenue from his abandoned Btu tax was vital to his economic package? Did he want to lift the ban against gays in the military, or not? Did he want to use military force to end the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, or not? And isn't his new confidant, David Gergen, the guy who helped the Reagan administration sell the country on the failed economic policies Clinton decried during the '92 campaign?

In what does this president firmly believe? For what is he willing to fight, tooth to toenail, down to the last bitter shout?

In that his behavior as a leader prompts similar questions, Kurt Schmoke is one with Bill Clinton.

I mean this as no knock on Schmoke's administrative abilities. As a manager of the city and its finances, he has an acceptable record. He's an honest, decent man. But he lacks the heart of the boxer. He doesn't fight. He's not even willing to get a little bloody.

During the budget crunch of recent years, the mayor suggested the city stop being such a generous patron of the arts -- $10 million annually -- while the city's cultural institutions were being patronized, in large measure, by people from the more affluent suburbs. But Schmoke dropped the curtain on that idea.

Instead of screaming about further cuts in state aid to Baltimore, Schmoke announced that library branches would have to close, and he said he would furlough teachers for a week and close the city schools to save money. Those announcements might have been part of a strategy to get the surrounding counties to sympathize with the city's complex problems.

It didn't work. Schools did not close. Furloughs never happened. The message was muddled. Schmoke convinced few in Annapolis that increased aid to the city was essential.

Crime is a huge problem in Baltimore. Twice, following high-profile crimes, Schmoke suggested the city's piggy-back income tax be raised by a few percentage points to pay for additional cops. That's a battle Schmoke could have won had he mounted an effective public relations campaign. City officials said the mayor's latest proposal would have cost the average taxpayer an additional $18 a year.

But count this one among the pulled punches.

For the second time in six months, Schmoke backed off on raising the piggyback.

Each year, the City That Needs has to beg for more help. For years it has suffered from an ambivalent state legislature and a White House that made neglect of the cities part of its national policy.

More than anything else, funding for public education of Baltimore's kids is an outrage. By one count, the state is spending $8,804 per round-trip customer on the year-old light rail system while the city, state and federal governments combined spend $5,549 on each kid in the city school system.

Where's Schmoke?

Once he talked boldly about suing the state for more money for education in Baltimore and other poor school districts. The city even spent $29,000 to hire a law firm that specializes in school-funding lawsuits.

Last week, Schmoke dropped the idea. At least he's predictable.

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