Wanted: A Republican courageous enough to take on Mikulski

November 20, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Is Maryland's Sen. Barbara Mikulski assured of election to a third term next year? Conventional wisdom says so, and it isn't always wrong. Certainly the senator seems to have scared off most of her likely opponents, which is always a good first step toward re-election.

It's also helpful to have star quality, and unlike any of the other five members of Maryland's Congressional delegation, Ms. Mikulski has some of that. Her face and her authentic Baltimore voice are widely recognized. She's just published a novel. She works hard, keeps her ego under control and can make people laugh.

Left-wing pol

On the issues, she's reliably left wing enough to charm Ivy League academics and the tweedy trust-fund types who bankroll all the causes most redolent of Social Concern, but she can also mix lunch-bucket issues with a touch of patriotism and dampen down potential antagonism in Legion halls or on assembly lines.

Shaken together, all that makes a powerful cocktail, and there's probably no real reason for thinking that a state which has been electing her lower-octane colleague Paul Sarbanes to the Senate for more than 20 years won't keep on electing Barbara Mikulski, too. She'll probably be voting for bills her constituents don't like well into the next century, and getting away with it.

But political brilliance is like a light bulb. It's hard to predict how long it will last. Sometimes it suddenly goes out, and sometimes, for unexplained reasons, it simply begins to fade. Millard Tydings, Dan Brewster, Joe Tydings . . . All were brilliant senators from Maryland, and all their careers ended rather suddenly.

Then, and this is perhaps a better example, there was the case of Charles McC. Mathias, the popular liberal Republican who served four terms. (When he won his second term, in 1974, he defeated a feisty City Council member from Baltimore, Barbara Mikulski. He got 503,000 votes, but she got 374,000, showing she had some statewide potential.)

By 1980, when he was running for his third term, as Ms. Mikulski will be next year, Mr. Mathias was considered unbeatable. The Democrats, conceding the seat, sent up a hapless Prince George's County state legislator, Ed Conroy, as their sacrificial nominee, and Mr. Mathias defeated him by a 2 to 1 margin.

In retrospect, though, Mr. Mathias might as well have lost. His third and last term was a total bust. He cast odd votes. He seemed a wraith wandering in the Washington mists. He had no taste for, nor influence with, the Reagan Administration.

He could perhaps have become a Democrat, but for a man who had been highly respected for his principles, that would have looked small and opportunistic. He had outlived his moment, which had been a long and bright one, and when his last term was over he slipped anti-climactically away into a Washington law firm.

He didn't write novels or fascinate the national press, but like Ms. Mikulski, Mr. Mathias in his prime had star quality. When he ventured into the Maryland countryside, he was likely to encounter heated opposition to some of his liberal votes, and like Ms. Mikulski he invariably was able to neutralize it by the force of his own personality.

A respectable guy

He infuriated conservatives, but they respected him, and -- even more important -- they tended to like him. He was good company, and he took them seriously, even if he didn't take their advice. It worked well for him, and for a while, it looked as though it would work forever.

By 1980, though, after two successful terms in the Senate, he probably wasn't as unbeatable as the conventional wisdom predicted. Had the Democrats thrown somebody other than poor Ed Conroy at him, might he have been defeated? It's all conjecture now, and nobody will ever know.

In Maryland, the only potential Mikulski-beater in sight is Congressman Robert Ehrlich, who has made it clear he'd like to be in the Senate, but has also made it almost as clear that he doesn't want to take on the putatively invincible Barbara. He'd rather wait two more years, in the hope that either Mr. Sarbanes' seat will be open or its occupant an easier target.

That's a long time to wait, but it's the cautious course, to be sure, and most congressional Republicans these days seem to be a cautious breed. They want to stay around for a long time; they think the way to do that is to be sure not to hurt anyone's feelings. They want to be team players, and politely wait their turn.

A reformer

Though many of them were elected as reformers, few of them share the blunt let's-fix-it-now determination of Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent, the Hall of Fame former wide receiver from the Seattle Seahawks. Mr. Largent said he hoped his Washington career would one day be described as ''brilliant but brief.''

Mr. Largent also likes a line from ''Braveheart'' delivered by the rebel Scot, William Wallace: ''People don't follow titles,'' says Mr. Wallace in the film, ''they follow courage.'' If Mr. Largent lived in Maryland, it seems likely, he might not consider Senator Mikulski unbeatable.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/20/97

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