Republican Ecker is part of a long tradition

November 06, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- It's a fine thing that Howard County's Chuck Ecker has decided to enter the Republican primary as a candidate for governor of Maryland, although perhaps not exactly for the reasons most widely given.

The idea that Mr. Ecker is the ''moderate'' and the Republican front-runner Ellen Sauerbrey is the ''conservative'' is pretty much just media twaddle. The press apparently has an enormous supply of those old labels in stock, and thriftily wants to use them up before investing in new ones, so they're used in election after election.

The candidates the press likes are called ''moderates,'' and those the press doesn't like are called ''conservatives,'' or sometimes ''right-wingers.'' Everyone understands this, and it isn't a big deal. The labels could just as easily be ''alphas'' and ''betas.'' They're a sort of shorthand, and aren't expected to be strictly accurate.

What's much more important about Mr. Ecker, and the reason his rather forlorn and probably doomed candidacy will continue to draw more attention than it might otherwise deserve, is that he is heart and soul a government man. He's spent much of his working life as a public employee. He believes in government, and prides himself in being able to make it work efficiently.

This is an honorable position, although not always a popular one. In embracing it, Mr. Ecker is carrying on an old Maryland tradition, and one which is by no means limited to Democrats. In fact, Maryland's only two Republican governors in the past 50 years, Theodore R. McKeldin and Spiro Agnew, campaigned promising to expand as well as improve government, and expand it they did after they were elected.

McKeldin, who both before and after his two terms in Annapolis served as mayor of Baltimore, prided himself on his ability to get big money from Washington for what was then called -- poignantly, in retrospect -- ''urban renewal.'' Agnew was elected as an urban-oriented, good-government liberal, and one of his first actions upon taking office, in cooperation with the Democratic legislature, was to get the state its first graduated income tax.

Since 1951, when McKeldin was first inaugurated, Maryland has had seven governors. Of these, it was the two Republicans, along with Democrats Marvin Mandel and William Donald Schaefer, who pressed the hardest to ''improve'' government by making it bigger. Of the others, Millard Tawes and Harry Hughes were less aggressive in expanding government. As for Parris Glendening, the verdict isn't in yet.

So Howard County's Mr. Ecker, like Agnew (a former Democrat), is reassuring to government-minded people in the media and elsewhere. They can't imagine him dismantling their favorite programs or getting serious about tax reduction. On the other hand, Ellen Sauerbrey, whom he will have to defeat to win the Republican nomination, absolutely terrifies them.

Unfortunately for Mr. Ecker, however, the era of McKeldin/Agnew big-spending Republicanism has passed. It has lost its appeal in the Republican Party, and in the state as well. Is there anyone out there who truly believes that Parris Glendening, who in 1994 defeated Mrs. Sauerbrey by the narrowest of margins while losing 21 of Maryland's 23 counties to her, would have been defeated by a Chuck Ecker?

Taxing matters

Still, an Ecker-Sauerbrey Republican primary next year should be useful, if only to dispose of the idea that Mrs. Sauerbrey's core political ideas -- lower taxes, smaller government, less state intrusion into the lives of its citizens -- have support only at the electoral margins. If Mr. Ecker really represents the mainstream, he'll win the primary. But if he doesn't even come close, maybe McKeldin/Agnew Republicanism will go away for a while.

In an essay in the December issue of Reason, editor Virginia Postrel traces the idea that government ''is supposed to pick sides and solve problems'' to Herbert Croly, the turn-of-the-century Progressive who wrote ''The Promise of American Life'' and founded The New Republic.

''Crolyism,'' she writes, ''overturned the ideal of limited government in favor of a combination of elite power -- commissions to regulate and plan -- and mass democracy. It was this pragmatic progressivism, not socialist utopianism, that extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government. ''Croly had little patience with constitutional guarantees, such as those concerning private property, which interfered with progressive governmental activism.''

In Maryland, the administrations of McKeldin, Agnew and William Donald Schaefer were instinctively Crolyist, as is the little crowd gathering now around Chuck Ecker. But Crolyism is on the wane, and a better, and more traditional, philosophy of government is a-building.

Mrs. Postrel suggests that this is based not on the idea that government is bad, which it isn't necessarily, but on a renewed sense that ''there is something precious and vital in private pursuits, something that is threatened by a government bent on subordination.'' This means abandoning the twin Crolyist conceits that governments can decide what's right for everyone, whether in our diverse and creative states or our nation, and that they should use their powers to whip everyone into line.

My guess is that Chuck Ecker, like Herbert Croly, represents the past, and that most Marylanders see that. But next year we'll know for sure, which is one reason he's done us all a service by jumping into this interesting campaign.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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