A few flips shy of a flop

February 25, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

NOTE TO Parris Glendening: It's time to take advice from an American icon about presenting a clear message to constituents. ''If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all the people all the time."

A fuzzy message -- appearing to try to fool all the people all the time -- seems to be part of the governor's problem. He wants to be all things to all people. Like Bill Clinton, he is eager for all groups to like him (and give him campaign support). But sending out conflicting signals ultimately turns counter-productive.

So far this legislative session, the governor has gone in two directions on personnel reform, on environmental regulations, on prison policies and on port dredging. He says he likes to bring opposing sides together under a ''big tent'' to reach compromise. More often than not, it comes out looking like appeasement.

Take personnel matters. While pursuing reforms to make the state work force more incentive-driven and easier to manage, Mr. Glendening is also pushing a collective-bargaining plan that includes binding arbitration. The two don't mesh. Efficiency gained through reforms would be lost under a raft of inflexible work rules bargained away -- or awarded by an arbitrator. Any savings from reforms vanish into almost certain wage and benefit hikes each year.

Mouth here, money there

On prison policy, the governor preaches a get-tough approach. But his ''truth in sentencing'' bill actually would mean shorter and less restrictive sentences for most lawbreakers. He calls for harsher treatment of hardened criminals, but he has stripped nearly all money from his budget for prison construction. And while his lieutenant governor crusades for alternatives to incarceration, there's no money for new alternative programs in the administration's budget.

The same duality crops up in regulatory reform. The governor wants to please the business community, but also the environmentalists. Thus, he has gone halfway on lifting regulations that impede businesses. So business leaders grumble that the governor's moves don't go far enough, and environmentalists complain that he is giving away too much.

The same straddle can be seen on harbor-dredging. Maryland needs a long-term solution for disposing of material dredged from the bay's shipping channels. Delays could damage the state's maritime economy. And yet the governor rejected a carefully crafted compromise worked out over several years by state officials, bay scientists and port leaders because environmentalists objected to experimental dumping of spoils in the deepest part of the bay. That move cheered environmentalists but dismayed the port community. The apparent waffling could produce continued gridlock on the critical dredging question.

The same thing could happen on prisons and personnel reform. The governor has fuzzed his message and given lawmakers the impression he has no clear vision.

But, as Abraham Lincoln said over a century ago, you can't fool all the people all the time. Mr. Glendening comes off as weak and hypocritical. Lawmakers see through the charade. They have little confidence in this administration. Because there is no statement of the governor's real priorities, legislators assume his agenda is merely political -- to assuage as many groups as possible.

Given that unfocused direction, lawmakers have little incentive to reconcile the governor's divergent approaches, or to side with one group over another. That is tough, thankless work. Unless the governor takes strong stands, why should legislators?

Mr. Glendening is not popular with the public. A recent poll showed his favorable rating at just 32 percent. His efforts to build two new football stadiums, while of long-term importance, aren't yet viewed positively by most voters.

To regain public confidence, he needs to chart a firm course with clear goals and objectives that Marylanders applaud. So far, that hasn't happened. Mr. Glendening has muddled his message. He has, indeed, tried too often to be all things to all people.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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