The Stupid Party

March 16, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Just as Republicans have long been known as the Stupid Party, not for what they believe but for their tactical incompetence, Maryland seems to go out of its way to earn its reputation as the Stupid State.

The governor has had a lot to do with that, and his dismal popularity ratings reflect Marylanders' willingness to give credit where it's due. But the General Assembly made its own contribution to the stupidity quotient last week as it struggled to find yet more ways to shoehorn state government into private lives, and especially private automobiles.

This sort of intrusion, as poll after poll shows, isn't popular anywhere, even in the regulators' playpen that Maryland has become. And sooner or later, perhaps in next year's elections, a reaction of some sort to the current pattern is all but inevitable. But will the reaction lead to political change? Don't bet on it, because change will require the leadership of the Stupid Party.

What's happening in Annapolis these days is entirely in character. Give Parris Glendening, and much of the legislature, a chance to increase regulation of any sort, and their instinct is to grab it and then look for more -- while the Stupid Party, as often as not, stands apathetically by.

Over a few years, this stuff mounts up. Operating on the principle that people don't know what's good for them, the last two Democratic administrations have turned state government into something remarkably like a giant day-care center.

So-called ''safety'' issues have titillated them particularly. Treadmill-testing of automobiles, which three out of four Marylanders oppose? Sure, great idea! (And even if it isn't so great, Washington wants it, so why not go along?) Motorcycle helmets? Slap 'em on! Seat belts? Arrest unbuckled scofflaws!

From the federal government, the governor and his sidekicks have learned the lesson that if you can't manage to do anything about serious crime, you might as well find a way to criminalize something that law-abiding people do, and then bully them until they stop. Add up all those arrests, hold a news conference, and you can pretend you've taken a bite out of crime.

Go ahead, erode our rights

In last week's pseudo-safety fiasco, the legislators voted to make Maryland one of a dozen states in which police can stop drivers and charge them with a crime if they're not wearing seat belts. Previously, seat-belt charges could only be brought if the driver were accused of some other violation as well.

A small change? Sure, it's only an incremental reduction in personal liberty. But what's next? A ban on smoking while driving seems promising. How about a new Home Safety Act, followed by unannounced household inspections to make sure Drano isn't on the same shelf as Raisin Bran?

In the House of Delegates, the vote on the seat-belt bill was close, 72 to 64. Ten members of the Stupid Party, enough to guarantee passage, voted with the majority. (They were, according to The Sun, Delegates Brinkley, Ciliberti, Elliott, Gordon, Hutchins, Kelly, La Vay, Mossburg, Stull and Stup.)

In Congress, where Republicans are in the majority, they're astounding Washington these days by behaving like losers. They run from issues the Democrats and the press tell them are volatile, and place their political hopes not on public support for their own policies, but on public distaste for their opponents'.

In Annapolis, where they're far from a majority in either house of the legislature but have enough members to make a difference, the same sort of thing is going on. Just as national Republicans panicked when Democrats attacked them on Medicare reform, the local ones are afraid that if they don't vote for nostrums like the seat-belt bill they'll be accused of being against ''safety.''

They're right about that. Democratic campaign ads featuring smashed cars and dead children are as inevitable in this next election as crabgrass in August. But rather than tackling this and other volatile issues head-on, and trusting the electorate to make the necessary distinctions, plenty of Maryland Republicans prefer to duck.

Their apparent operating assumption is that because Parris Glendening is so unpopular his interventionist agenda so despised, more voters than ever will vote Republican, even if the Republican candidates are indistinguishable from the Democrats.

That's a cocky and contemptuous attitude, to say the least, and a risky one, too. You can't fool all the people all the time, an old Republican once said. But that was before anyone had heard of the Stupid Party, even here in the Stupid State.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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