For many, it's still the economy, stupid

November 07, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Go figure.

Go figure that ancient American adage that everyone votes his pocketbook, and Bill Clinton wins big on Tuesday with voters declaring confidence in the dollar, and yet, on the morning after the election, the same sad faces were upstairs on Lombard Street.

Go figure.

Go figure those exit polls Tuesday, where about 40 percent of Maryland voters said they're better off financially than they were four years ago, and only 20 percent said they were in worse shape. Wonderful. Four years before this, at the tail end of the recession that dared not speak its own name, only 26 percent of Maryland voters said they were better off than four years earlier, while 39 percent said they were in worse shape.

And yet yesterday, four years after telling us, "It's the economy, stupid," and less than 12 hours after it was clear Clinton was crushing Bob Dole at the polls, there was the usual crowd on Lombard Street, in the courthouse that looks like a parking garage, at U.S. Bankruptcy Court here.

They're in there every day, only the numbers keep getting bigger.

A year ago, there were 9,549 bankruptcies filed in Baltimore -- and another 8,202 in the state's other bankruptcy court, in Greenbelt.

And that was small stuff.

The first 10 months of 1996, there were 10,745 bankruptcies from around the state filed in Baltimore, with Greenbelt not far behind. In the Baltimore court, there were more than a thousand bankruptcies each month for the past eight months. For the state, roughly 20,000 bankruptcies were filed through October.

All are modern records.

"It's the Babe Ruth era of bankruptcies," a Bankruptcy Court official acknowledged yesterday. "Records and more records."

Go figure.

When he wasn't looking backward -- building his bridge to a more gently remembered past, to his ordeal in World War II, to the various alleged immoralities of Bill Clinton -- the most dramatic vision Dole offered voters for the future was a 15 percent tax cut.

Nobody bought it. It'll never work, everybody said, not with that crushing deficit, not with the burden we're already passing on to our children. Fifteen percent! What was this man thinking?

And yet, election night, as she watched the numbers mounting toward Dole's big loss, here was Helen Bentley, former Republican congresswoman, former candidate for governor, a woman who never forgets a name or a number, including these:

Ellen Sauerbrey.

And, 25 percent.

"Funny, isn't it?" Bentley said. "Dole never found a message that gave him traction. He wanted a 15 percent tax cut, and it never caught on at all. But Ellen Sauerbrey wanted a 25 percent tax cut, and folks believed in it here."

It was two years ago. Enough Marylanders believed in it that Bentley, considered a cinch for the Republican gubernatorial nod, was utterly blind-sided by Sauerbrey's call for a 25 percent tax cut, a cry that hit such a nerve that -- despite overwhelming Democratic registration, despite Parris Glendening's huge campaign spending, despite his support from the state's big population centers -- Sauerbrey nearly knocked off Glendening.

Go figure.

Go figure, election night, Glendening standing at the Clinton victory party here, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he talked about Marylanders voting for Bill Clinton because this White House has been wonderful to Maryland, and marvelous to the city of Baltimore, whose mayor stood next to Glendening and nodded enthusiastically.

And surely, in some ways, Clinton has. That $100 million in empowerment zone money comes quickly to mind. And yet, if Washington's no longer the whipping boy for local problems, if Clinton's this grand friend, then who's to blame when we look at the continuing mass exodus from the city, at blocks of rotting houses, at 18,000 drug arrests a year and the crime rate continuing to make people cringe in their homes, at schools turning out graduates incapable of making their way in the world -- and, not to be overlooked, at an Annapolis less capable of helping, because the state government's swimming in a sea of its own problems?

Somehow, Bill Clinton got past such misgivings.

Go figure.

He got past them because Bob Dole never told anybody how he'd make any of it better. He told us Bill Clinton was an immoral guy, which might be true, but who needs Dole to tell us? He didn't understand the modern electronic intimacies: We've been watching Bill Clinton for four years now. He's in our homes every night. After all this time, we figure we know everything there is to know about him, and we don't need Dole or anyone else to run LTC for office by adding to that. It's informational overload.

What he never told us was the stuff we didn't know: How to get all those people out of bankruptcy court. How a tax cut might work in ways that many Marylanders found plausible but most of the nation found ludicrous. And how he might reach into troubled communities that the Democrats, for all their great talk of helping underdogs, have barely begun to touch.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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