Disappearing Democrats

April 13, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- The Democratic Party used to provide a pretty big tent. While some of its more fractious members might bolt from time to time, they almost always returned, and room was made for them. That was a source of the party's strength.

But even in what used to be one-party Maryland, it's not the case any longer. Today the once-powerful party is melting away before our eyes like the witch in ''The Wizard of Oz.'' Almost daily, it seems, Democratic politicians resign, retire or announce a change of parties.

The big tent is still there, but the bedraggled souls huddled inside it look more like refugees than political leaders. Not only has the party lost its confidence and its resilience, but quite possibly its critical mass as well. Its very survival is now uncertain. In one long political generation, how times have changed.

In Maryland in 1966, a number of liberal Democrats fled the Democratic nominee for governor, George P. Mahoney, because they decided he was a racist. (He wasn't, but he did make improper noises, and campaigned on the shocking slogan ''Your Home Is Your Castle.'') Yet although the fugitives endorsed the Republican candidate, Spiro T. Agnew, they didn't become Republicans.

In 1968 and 1972, some Democratic conservatives bolted from the party. Democrats for Nixon organizations drew the public support, and the money, of a handful of prominent Maryland business people who were horrified first by Hubert Humphrey and then by George McGovern.

These Nixon backers didn't become Republicans either. For social and economic reasons, as well as for political ones, they preferred life under the big Democratic tent.

In those years, there were also Democrats who stayed with the party as a matter of principle even when they disagreed with it. One of these was Jim Clark, who represented Howard County in the state Senate for six terms, one as Senate president, before retiring in 1986. Senator Clark's relationship with his party is worth a brief review.

In most respects, Jim Clark was politically liberal by the standards of his day. He was one of the strongest voices in the legislature on behalf of environmental issues, and he was strong too on civil rights. But he stayed with his party, and with the disparaged George Mahoney, in 1966.

Senator Clark was also a staunch fiscal conservative, who was pressing for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution long before Newt Gingrich made his first appearance on national television. He was worried by what he saw as the tax-and-spend proclivities of Humphrey and McGovern. Yet he didn't join those Democrats who endorsed Richard Nixon in 1968 or 1972.

Why? Ordinary loyalty had something to do with it, but he also believed in the party as an enduring institution. Most of the sensible people he knew best were Democrats. This was true in the legislature, and true also in rural Howard County, where he ran his family's dairy farm. If state or national policies were off-course, he figured that Democrats ought be able to get together and straighten them out.

History records that this didn't happen, and it's worth recording too that Jim Clark's loyalty to his party was not reciprocated. As the Maryland Democratic party grew ever more ideological and ever less inclusive, his blunt-spoken views cost him the broad party support he would have needed to run the U.S. Senate campaign he considered. Later those same views cost him the presidency of the state Senate. He retired in 1986 and went back to the farm.

I spoke to him the other day about politics, and the state of his party. ''Well, it's coming apart at the seams, isn't it?'' he said, without rancor. ''Perhaps I should have switched, years ago. I believe I could have been elected as a Republican. But that's all history now.''

He's amazed by the accomplishments of the 104th Congress under Speaker Gingrich. ''Anyone who knows anything about a legislative body can tell you that what he's done is remarkable. I applaud him, and all of them.''

He hasn't re-registered as a Republican, however, and doesn't expect to. Force of habit, perhaps.

But he notes that while he used to advise young people in Howard County to register as Democrats so that they'd have a vote in the important Democratic primaries, that reason is no longer compelling. In Howard and elsewhere, Republican primaries are already likely to be as closely contested as Democratic ones. In another election or two, they'll be where most of the interesting action is.

A decade ago, no such thing seemed remotely possible, because the prodigals who left the Democratic tent for one election or two could be expected to return for the next. This time they're not coming back. Even in Maryland, the party to which Jim Clark stayed loyal for so long appears to be on the brink of terminal decline.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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