The Senate's Professor, the President's Tutor

February 24, 1994|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

He's been called boring on the stump, lucky in elections, overly liberal even for liberal Maryland, and, probably worst of all, Maryland's do-nothing, phantom senator.

Say hello to Paul Sarbanes, your senior and possibly misunderstood U.S. senator. And, while he may top the list of vulnerable Democrats nationally, he'll most likely return to Washington next January for a fourth consecutive senatorial term and his first powerful Senate chairmanship (banking). Probably the only thing that could defeat him is the unlikeliest of developments, such as unseemly personal behavior.

The thing to understand about Mr. Sarbanes, one of the Senate's least flashy members, is that he's unconventional. If you're a U.S. senator, you make sure the public back home knows you're important, and that you're accomplishing great things. Not Mr. Sarbanes. For him, not publicizing himself back home isn't political suicide, but securing the freedom to do what he does best and what he thinks is important. Prospective press secretaries for Mr. Sarbanes, touting how much they can do for him, have been shown the door. ''That's not the way we do business around here,'' they've been told.

In fact, Mr. Sarbanes is much more active on state matters than either he or his non-publicists advertise. He pulls strings at the Pentagon, trying to keep Maryland military bases open and well-manned. Keeping the Patuxent Naval Air Station in that category is a recent example.

The plausible case can be made that, in a predominantly Democratic state like Maryland, the key to a long senatorial career, once it is launched, revolves around three things: 1) making friends with potential Democratic rivals, thereby keeping them from taking you on; 2) avoiding conspicuous mess-ups, so voters can at least respect you; 3) maintaining strong labor ties so that traditional Democrats will turn out on Election Day.

Senator Sarbanes has done all those things, and has flourished. After winning his seat in 1976 by thwarting a comeback attempt by former Sen. Joe Tydings, Mr. Sarbanes has never had strong opposition from either Democrats or Republicans. In a 27-year political career that's included seven political races (state legislative, congressional and senatorial), he has never lost, nor gotten less than 58 percent of the vote.

Mr. Sarbanes always has been something of a mystery in a less obvious way. Intense, aloof and brainy, he stands in sharp contrast to Barbara Mikulski, who began her Senate career in 1986 intent on making herself a true and powerful insider. Mr. Sarbanes has never seemed to seek power or to join the senatorial club, though members respect him.

And he's always seemed more interested in subjects, and boring subjects at that. Like economics (he once was top aide to the head of the President's Council of Economic Advisers), the Federal Reserve system (he's considered to be Alan Greenspan's chief nemesis, continually threatening to remove some of the Fed's vaunted power) and the qualifications of ambassadors abroad (he's often lectured presidents that large campaign contributions don't equip someone to serve U.S. interests overseas).

Occasionally, this drudging yields a political payoff. About one month ago, Mr. Sarbanes scored points with business, the president and the voters by disputing Fed chairman Alan Greenspan's assertion (later backed up by Fed action) that a short-term increase in the prime interest rate was necessary to cool any inflation potential. The senator's willingness to second-guess the nation's top banker may have redounded to his political credit, mostly because it got so much TV coverage.

Most voters expect senators to be proposers of laws. How else can one be effective, they wonder. Over 18 years in the Senate, no one can point to any legislation Mr. Sarbanes has sponsored.

If he has a political problem, this is it. ''Every once in a while, Mr. Sarbanes will name a stretch of highway after someone,'' mocks Craig Estes, campaign manager for Ruthann Aron, a Montgomery County attorney, planning commissioner and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate this year.

Is it important that Mr. Sarbanes sponsor bills that bear his name? Is it important that we know all the other things he does? Mr. Sarbanes knows and understands the state and the world. He travels widely. He observes acutely. He thinks deeply. Action for him appears to be serving as old-fashioned critic and observer, as professor to the Senate, and tutor of presidents.

Little wonder that, when observers try to picture Mr. Sarbanes in a post-Senate context, they see him as Fed chairman or Treasury secretary, or maybe just holding down an endowed professorship at a nearby university.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics.

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