As the Ship of State Lists, the GOP Turns Landlubber

January 16, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — What is it with the poor old Maryland Republicans? Once again, they appear to be coming down with a case of the election-year collywobbles.

For a U.S. Senate candidate, they're likely to end up with a retread from Tennessee. For governor, the most important job, they have several candidates, but no partisan coherence about what needs to be done. Maybe that's why there's such an astonishing lack of enthusiasm. The quadrennial parade is forming, but lots of Republicans don't even seem to want to march in it, let alone lead it. Instead, they're staying home with the blinds down.

Anyone with an entrepreneurial turn of mind can see that opportunities are everywhere this year, especially political ones. But perhaps the Republicans, having grown old and comfortable in their minority status, aren't entrepreneurs any more, and can't work up much enthusiasm for anything that involves risk.

Speaking of risk, here comes the ship of state, heading for harbor after a rough four-year voyage. She isn't a pretty sight; in fact, she resembles the unfortunate El Toro more than the Pride of Baltimore. The classic hull is leaking badly, the decks are awash, and the tax-powered pumps are going full blast trying to keep her afloat until she's secured.

The passengers, who are also the owners, are restless -- and who can blame them, with the water up to their ankles and the sailors whispering mutinously behind their backs? The worst of the bad weather is probably over now, the forecasters say, but there was an ominous red sunrise this morning and the barometer is still oddly low. It's been a rough passage, and it isn't over yet.

The unusually large crew the ship carries these days was never more than barely civil to the passengers in the best of times, but recently it has turned downright surly. The crew wants a raise, and knows the ship's deteriorated condition is being used as an argument why it shouldn't get one. In the fo'csle this is considered unfair, and has generated resentment.

The 188 junior officers, whom the owners select every four years, are so busy currying favor in the hope of winning another voyage that they're no longer paying much attention either to the ship's condition or her course. A few of the brighter ones, disheartened by their experiences of the last four years, plan to look for other work once they reach the dock.

On the bridge, there's tension. The skipper already knows he won't be getting another command, and he isn't looking forward to life ashore in the Home for Retired Mariners. Junior officers who once feared the captain have completely abandoned even the pretense of discipline. When the bridge issues orders these days, they take pride in disobeying them.

The captain personally hired the first mate, and the two officers used to be friendly, but for some time now they haven't been speaking to one another at all. The mate, who aspires to a command of his own and hopes desperately to be promoted after this voyage, doesn't want to be blamed for the captain's unpopularity. But he never misses a chance to talk about his own seamanship. This has made him something of a shipboard joke.

Passengers never know when the mate's going to appear and offer to show them his sextant. ''Want to see me navigate?'' he's likely to ask. ''Want to watch me tie a bowline? Batten down a hatch? Reef the mizzen? How about a quiz on the rules of the road? Go ahead, ask me what signals a tugboat with a barge in tow is supposed to make in the fog!''

''Not now, Mickey,'' they invariably reply. ''Maybe later.'' It drives him wild.

In November, the owners will designate new officers to operate the ship, to hire key crew members, and to set the course for the next four years. Several applications are pending, in addition to the mate's. Some are from junior officers who think they're now ready for command, and a few are from mariners who don't know this particular ship but have sailed on others.

As this vessel has been commanded only by Democrats for lo these many voyages, and as the ownership is obviously discontented with the results, you might think the Republicans would be frantically seeking to swarm aboard. But so far they don't seem that excited. Perhaps that's because they mistakenly see this command as a sure thing, or perhaps it's because they're not really sure that if they're selected they'll be able to run the old tub any better.

A number of the passengers can see clearly what needs to be done. The leaks in the hull need to be patched so the over-stressed pumps don't have to work so hard. The crew should be reduced slightly, or at least not allowed to grow for a while. There should be major changes in the junior officer corps. But most of all there needs to be a new captain with experience, determination and vision -- one in whom the owner-passengers can have confidence.

All that may be asking too much, and it's perfectly possible that even if none of these recommendations are implemented, the ship will stay sound enough for another voyage. Of course, they said that about the El Toro, too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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