The party's dashing hero is -- Cardin?

November 24, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Take heart, Maryland Democrats! Although the Democratic Inspector Clouseau who occupies the governor's mansion in Annapolis seems determined to bumble his way over the electoral cliff two years from now and take many of you with him, there is still hope.

Rumor has it that the famed Colonel Cardin is riding in from Washington on the MARC train. If he ever arrives -- the Cardin train isn't exactly an express -- he's expected to brush the dust of the Ways and Means Committee from his suit, push the impossible Clouseau aside, and offer the terrified Democrats what they've been a-prayin' for.

Leadership! Experience! Charisma! Well, leadership and experience, anyway. That charisma business is over-rated, and Maryland governors haven't exhibited it much anyway since the days of Albert Ritchie. Leadership and experience ought to do it. Maybe Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrman will join the colonel in his rescue effort, and she can supply the charisma.

Members of the bloody-minded Republican war party, who've been stampeding Clouseau and his confused Democrats toward the cliff so that they can loot and plunder amid the anticipated carnage, are said to be mighty worried about the Cardin rumor. Journalistic scouts report that many of the once-confident savages are now shaking in their tepees. There has been talk of sending the squaws and papooses to Idaho for their own safety.

Some reckless young braves are unintimidated, believing all Democratic chiefs are as weak as the fumbling Clouseau. But their elders warn that Colonel Cardin and his close friend the Great White Father in Washington can make powerful medicine together. (Actually it's the Great White Mother who's supposed to be the medicine-maker, but never mind that now.)

The scouts, sensing this uncertainty, theorize that Cardin will be able to arrive on the Maryland plains, rout the wretched Clouseau and his handful of loyalists, and fall on the panicked Republicans like a wolf on the fold. And then happy days will be here again. Democrats will not only have the governor's mansion, they'll have respect. Can you imagine anyone in Maryland making fun of Congressman Ben Cardin?

Friends around the state

Now let's leave the frontier movie set behind, but continue to explore the implications of a Cardin candidacy. There's no doubt the Baltimore congressman, a former speaker of the House of Delegates, still has more friends around Maryland than did Clous-- er, Parris Glendening before he won the 1994 election.

On the other hand, a truly vicious Democratic primary -- the only kind of primary that could bring the defeat of an incumbent governor -- might not be a bad thing for Republicans. It would inevitably produce, two months before the general election, a pretty battered Democratic survivor.

Then there is the question whether the Maryland voters, who in 1994 gave a majority in 21 of 23 counties to the Republican candidate for governor, would find a garden-variety tax-infatuated liberal Democrat from Baltimore much more appealing than a garden-variety tax-infatuated liberal Democrat from Prince George's County.

Admirers of Ben Cardin would have us believe that he's changed. And maybe he has. In 1990, early in his Washington career, the National Journal noted that he voted for the liberal position on economic issues 87 percent of the time. Maryland business groups rated him almost the worst in the state's congressional delegation, lower even than Kweisi Mfume and (remember him?) Tom McMillen.

That super-liberal rating didn't last. In 1992 it was 78 percent; in 1993, 68 percent; in 1994, 58 percent. On key social and national-security issues as well, during those years, the Cardin votes followed a similar moderating curve.

But whether this indicates philosophical conversion or a grudging acceptance of new political realities is far from clear. Also far from clear is whether Ben Cardin, whose success in legislative politics has largely come through negotiation and compromise, is either ready or able to take on a truly bitter statewide campaign.

He is being pushed to do so by people who like him, by people who despise Parris Glendening, and by the frustrations of his own congressional career, stalled by his party's loss -- probably for many years to come -- of its majority status. But although he would like to be governor, it isn't certain that he is willing to risk being known simply as a former congressman.

He has certain drawbacks. His public persona is bland if not boring. He comes from a part of Maryland that many residents of the state instinctively view with suspicion. And he seems entirely too buddy-buddy with people, the current commander-in-chief included, who give large chunks of the electorate the creepy-crawlies.

That he is still being pushed forward as a candidate suggests his party's desperation, and underscores the remarkable weakness of Parris Glendening.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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