Song and Dance Has New Tune in Politics

November 20, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening called his opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a "millionairess," a right-winger and a radical conservative.

She called him a taxer and a spender, a prisoner of special interests and a liberal.

Pretty tame.

In California, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called her opponent, Michael Huffington, a "do-nothing" political dilettante, also "secretive, threatening and greedy."

Missouri Senate candidate Alan Wheat said his opponent, John Ashcroft, was responsible for an abortion-clinic murder.

Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia called the president of the United States and his wife "counterculture McGovern-niks" and said Democrats were responsible for the murder of two baby boys in South Carolina.

My, my. Hurt us or not, words are the sticks and stones of political discourse, the language of would-be leaders.

So what do they mean?

More and less.

The White House said Mr. Gingrich's outburst was "silly name-calling." Name-calling, yes, but silly?

The record speaks for itself, at least in the short run. Partly on the strength of invective, Republicans have their first House majority in 40 years and Mr. Gingrich will soon be called "Mr. Speaker."

He had suggested that Mr. Clinton is an unrepentant liberal. This is not quite true. Mr. Clinton repented! As governor of Arkansas and as a candidate for president, he called himself a "New" Democrat and helped found an organization committed to the propagation of a new and unliberal dogma. Didn't work. Made things worse. Anytime an old label is preceded by "new," you know there is a deeper message, just as any term ending with "nik," as in peace-nik or McGovern-nik, means the target is subversive.

Mr. Clinton made his leap toward the center and won the White House in 1992. But he didn't finish the leap. While he was still in the air, the ground shifted further to the right and he seemed to reach back toward the left -- an awkward pose, to be sure. Hence Mr. Gingrich's assertion that he, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. McGovern, the liberal Democrat who lost his 1972 race for president, were fellow travelers.

In comparison to these rhetorical spatterings, the race for governor here was decorous. The candidates confined themselves almost exclusively to the proven epithets.

Mr. Glendening seemed to be getting a bit panicky when he referred to Mrs. Sauerbrey as a "millionairess," an uncharacteristic bit of sniping that made some wonder if his internal polls weren't showing just how strong she was.

She labeled him right back, and he seemed unable or unwilling to dodge the liberal tag. Like Mr. Clinton, he had tried to redefine himself. He'd gone the one-word prefix route, not once but twice: was both a "mainstream moderate" and a "Tsongas-style Democrat." Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, relatively conservative and business-oriented winner of the Democratic presidential primary in Maryland, had advocated the use of government as a facilitator for economic growth.

Evasive action, said the Sauerbrey side, thinking they had their quarry on the run. From what, though?

Roget's 21st Century says the word liberal as adjective means "progressive, advanced, avante-garde . . . indulgent, permissive, radical, unbiased, unbigoted . . . [moving on here toe the second set of definitions] bounteous, dime a dozen, loose, galore, handsome, no end and rich."

Whatever it meant, "liberal" was a dirty word.

After the election, Mr. Glendening was asked if he would think about further redefining himself. No, he said, but he clearly would continue to work on the redefinition he had started before the campaign.

"I don't think voters would respect me if I said, in view of the election, all of a sudden I'm not a Democrat, or all of a sudden, I've changed my ideology. That's not true. I am a Democrat and I'm proud to be a Democrat," he said.

As usual, the full answer went beyond a word, a suffix, a prefix or a hyphenated rhetorical curve ball.

"I believe in fiscal responsibility. We have run this government in Prince George's this way. We ended up with a $46 million surplus, family income doubled, 125,000 more jobs. To me, that's good moderate Democratic leadership.

"But I do believe in certain progressive issues: we very strongly need environmental policy based on stewardship of the past and future. I do believe very strongly that we ought to have some reasonable and responsible gun policy. I do believe in a woman's right to choose. And I also believe in public education.

"I will tell you as well, I do have compassion. I think we can be fiscally responsible, and still reach out and offer help to those who are most in need in society."

Mr. Glendening gave at least as good as he got. He insisted his opponent was out of step with the voters of Maryland. In the new climate, his attack risked giving name recognition to his lesser-known opponent and sending voters in the conservative direction many apparently found attractive.

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