The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is 'Maturity'

September 18, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- It was really quite a spectacular wreck. As the polls closed on Primary Day, there was Maryland's establishment applecart upside down in the ditch, its wheels turning slowly in the air and various Game Plans lying abandoned in the road.

From somewhere beneath the rubble the squeaky voice of Rep. Helen Bentley could still be heard, but it was fading fast. Pundits and functionaries who had expected to ride the old vehicle all the way to the general election were wandering dazedly about, wondering what had hit them.

The little Sauerbrey bandwagon, which had been in the vicinity at the time of the accident, was nowhere to be seen. It must have slipped past just when the roadway made that unexpected turn to the right and upset the applecart. And what was all that hoopla going on, somewhere far ahead? It sounded like people celebrating. Many people.

Now, several days later, exhaustive reports are still being prepared on the Wreck of the Applecart. Experienced political observers around the state have interviewed each other carefully, and reached the following conclusions.

* In defeating Mrs. Bentley for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Del. Ellen Sauerbrey ran a ''brilliant'' campaign. (This is the firmest of all the conclusions. Most of us smart people who get to comment publicly on state politics had predicted that Mrs. Sauerbrey would lose. As we always know what the voters want, there can't be any doubt that tactics and not philosophy determined this election. And because the tactics worked, they must have been brilliant. Q.E.D.)

* However, Mrs. Sauerbrey may have been too brilliant for her own good. Her conservative (sometimes called ''right-wing'' or ''Reaganite'') ideas may have won her the primary, but they couldn't possibly win her the general election against Parris Glendening, Prince George's County's friendly Professor Fuzz. They're too scary.

* That means the Republican candidate is in a pickle. Even though it may alienate the army of crazed gun nuts, religious wackos, naive tax-cutters and simple-minded social conservatives that nominated her last week, she must try to sound more ''responsible'' -- i.e. more like, say, Governor Schaefer. (If she tries that, watch for her candidacy to be described as ''maturing.'')

Once the primary results were in, the emission of these flatulent conclusions was as predictable as the impending autumnal equinox. But they shouldn't be taken seriously. They're expressions of establishment confusion and wistfulness, and little more.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's election had nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with philosophy. The candidate had limited money and modest name recognition, but she had certain clear principles, and she communicated these indefatigably. Voters noticed.

Her main primary opponent, Mrs. Bentley, eschewed philosophy and avoided the kind of public debates that bring out and sharpen philosophical differences. She chose instead to run on her erratic record and her reputation for feistiness. Those would have been enough to win her the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, but they were no match for the Sauerbrey energy and focus.

Well, what about the future? Is it true that Mrs. Sauerbrey, by saying what she believes instead of what campaign spin doctors prescribe, is dead meat?

Is it true that the voters will prefer Professor Fuzz and his sidekick, Silent Kennedy, to a candidate who says quietly and rationally that making our government bigger won't make it better?

The Sun editorially poses the question -- ''Can Mrs. Sauerbrey win over Reagan Democrats in suburbia?'' I wouldn't presume to speak for all of us, but I doubt there's much winning over to do. A great many Reagan Democrats watched the Republican primary last week a lot more closely than the Democratic one we voted in.

We were won over by ideas long before we had a candidate, and while we saw our ideas prevailing in election after election around the country, it wasn't at all clear that in Maryland they would even get a fair hearing. Even when Mrs. Sauerbrey announced her candidacy, she was dismissed -- sometimes by bigshots in her own party -- as someone from the fringe.

A major fear of many Reagan Democrats, in suburbia or elsewhere, was that if Mrs. Sauerbrey didn't win the nomination, we wouldn't see any gubernatorial candidate worth voting for on the November ballot, and we'd be faced with four more years of business as usual. But she did win, and all we have to worry about now is how much she'll ''mature.''

The applecart she overturned is out of the ditch and back on its wheels now, and its passengers, brushing the dust from their clothes and the egg from their faces, have climbed back aboard and resumed their stately progression. Professor Fuzz has been given the seat of honor.

But the old air of confidence is missing. What overturned once could overturn again, and the road to November looks like it's still bending to the right.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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