Speak only ill of a fellow Republican

December 08, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

THOSE WACKY Republicans are at it again. There's never a dull moment inside the Maryland GOP, also known as the gang that can't shoot straight.

A deep divide separates factions within the party. And because their differences are so basic, don't look for a truce.

On the one side sit the True Believers. They are fundamental conservatives, both in theory and in practice -- purists who brook no deviations and abhor compromise. Their devotion to the cause at times borders on fanaticism.

Blended into this group are die-hard fiscal conservatives as well as Christian Right social conservatives. To them, keeping faith with their beliefs is more important than passing legislation or even winning elections.

On the other side reside the Pragmatists. Many are conservative, but they're not zealots. They follow Ronald Reagan's ''big tent'' approach -- be flexible and tolerant enough to accommodate a vast array of political viewpoints.

This side believes that a democracy can only work well if there is a willingness to seek consensus among the clamor of voices. Moderation is no vice, they maintain, in crafting legislation or executive policy.

True Believers adamantly disagree. Moderation is a vice. Only by preaching and practicing a purist form of conservatism can the country be saved.

At the moment, Maryland's True Believers have elevated their standard bearer, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, to near-sainthood. Anyone who disagrees or opposes her is castigated as ''liberal'' and accused of treason.

In recent weeks, though, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall -- staunch fiscal conservatives -- emerged as Pragmatists who might challenge Ms. Sauerbrey for dominance of the state GOP. True Believers went into a frenzy.

Mr. Neall was accused of being ''liberal'' and a tool of Democrats. Mr. Ecker was called a pseudo-conservative and a ''get along, go along'' politician. Even the late state Sen. John A. Cade was pilloried as an impure conservative who dared work with Democrats.

The sin of speaking truth

And now True Believers have turned on Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary. His sin? Daring to express the well-known fact that when he and Ms. Sauerbrey served in the General Assembly, her views were often out of sync with lawmakers, including some within her own party.

That kind of talk isn't acceptable. So Mr. Gary was taken to the woodshed by Ms. Sauerbrey and one of her chief supporters, businessman Richard E. Hug. They don't want GOP dissension.

Not everyone in the state party, though, is willing to cede control to the True Believers.

Pragmatists maintain that Ms. Sauerbrey could lead the party to disaster. Yes, she came within an eyelash of winning the governorship in 1994, but that was due to the weakness of the Democratic nominee, not the public's embrace of her conservatism.

In a rerun, these Republicans feel a golden opportunity could be lost. Ms. Sauerbrey remains too hard-edged to defeat even an unpopular Gov. Parris N. Glendening. These Republicans want a centrist candidate, such as Mr. Ecker, who could draw disenchanted Democratic voters.

True Believers hold the opposite view. Marylanders want a choice, not an echo, they argue. Only a pure conservative like Ms. Sauerbrey fits the bill. She cannot lose against a weakened Mr. Glendening in 1998.

This struggle within the Maryland Republican Party is not new. It is a continuation of the decades-old tug of war between the left and right wings.

At the moment, the right wing has the upper hand. Ms. Sauerbrey soundly defeated the moderates' choice, Helen D. Bentley, in the 1994 primary, and almost won the general election.

But coming close only wins at horseshoes. History shows that centrist Republicans are far more likely to be victorious than right-wingers in Maryland.

Since World War II, voters have repeatedly rejected hardened conservatives in statewide races -- the main exception being John Marshall Butler, who won by using ''Red scare'' smear tactics against four-term conservative Democrat Sen. Millard Tydings.

Which side will gain control of the party? It may take a showdown in the 1998 GOP primary to decide. Even then, failure to win the governorship could re-ignite the controversy as Maryland Republicans continue to search for their true identity.

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

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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