A Fourth Term for Sarbanes

October 31, 1994

Two hours of debate on two successive nights between Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and his Republican challenger, William E. Brock III, confirm the view of this newspaper that Mr. Sarbanes is the stronger candidate. In a year when incumbents are under attack, Senator Sarbanes went over to the offensive and was able to stay there despite the fumbling best efforts of his opponent.

Mr. Brock, a man with distinguished past service as a legislator and Cabinet officer, simply was unable to make a strong case why he should replace Mr. Sarbanes in the U.S. Senate. He could never quite recover from Mr. Sarbanes' assaults on his voting and attendance record while he was a member of Congress from Tennessee in the Sixties and Seventies, nor was he able to put his support of Republican filibustering tactics during the closing weeks of the the 103rd Congress in a good light.

Debating skills should not be the only standard by which candidates are judged. What about substance? On the national scene, we do not agree with Bill Brock's opposition to the 1993 Clinton budget bill, which has materially reduced yearly deficits. We do not agree with his opposition to the omnibus crime bill. His support of term limits has him latching on to a dubious political fad.

In the context of the rightward drift of the Republican Party, Mr. Brock could be an important force for moderation in the state and nationally. During his debate with Senator Sarbanes, he displayed genuine concern about the breakdown of education in urban schools and about a welfare system that condemns too many of its beneficiaries to lifelong dependency. But when confronted with Mr. Sarbanes's unabashed, down-the-line liberalism, he did not define his moderate-to-conservative philosophy in convincing fashion.

This is not to say that Senator Sarbanes was all that convincing. His defense of his protectionist vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement crumbled when he had to admit the accord has worked well so far. On his hobby horse of fighting for low interest rates, Mr. Sarbanes again complained that the Federal Reserve Board is unwilling to reveal its high-interest rate strategy to the nation. This from a senator who has spent scores of hours debating the very subject with Fed chairman Alan Greenspan on C-SPAN.

Clearly, Mr. Sarbanes displays many of the attributes of a politician who has been too long in the Capitol Hill hothouse. He bristles at criticism as though it is an affront not to be tolerated. His Democratic partisanship is unyielding. But always lucky in the caliber of his Republican opponents, his claim to a fourth term is more substantial than it should be.

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