Md. GOP must replace slogans with substance

November 15, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

SO ELLEN R. Sauerbrey wants to run the state Republican Party. Don't expect miracles, but the twice-defeated gubernatorial candidate at least offers a unifying figure at a time when the party seems headed for bitter disputes.

The situation in Maryland is similar to the scene in Washington. Chastened by defeat on Nov. 3, rebellious House Republicans convinced Speaker Newt Gingrich to leave, then talked of a new direction.

Ms. Sauerbrey also spoke of a new direction for local Republicans after losing her race -- broadening the party's conservative base to appeal to minorities, environmentalists and soccer moms.

It sounds good, just as national GOP demands for a new message sound appealing. But the messages lack substance. As Walter Mondale once said of his opponents' stance: "Where's the beef?"

Sloganeering didn't cut it with voters on Nov. 3. Republican buzz words fell on deaf ears. Why? Because there was no meat on the bone, only vague promises. A skeptical public wants more.

Maryland Republicans, for instance, are hot to cut taxes. Yet voters didn't identify with this empty expression. Voters especially didn't believe it could be done without taking a chunk out of existing government services.

Promises, promises

Yet there was Ms. Sauerbrey promising a 14-percent tax cut, 1,000 more teachers, no program cuts, a billion-dollar, cross-county road and more, more, more. Voters spotted the inconsistency.

Voters also detected empty rhetoric in the Gingrich-fashioned Republican agenda. It was the Democrats, not Republicans, talking about meaty issues voters cared about, such as Social Security and health care.

Repositioning the GOP won't be easy, especially when leaders are pulling in opposite directions.

Conservatives in Maryland are already angry about Ms. Sauerbrey's talk of reaching out to urban voters. They want a more conservative message, not less. How will they react if, as party chairman, she adopts flexible positions on social issues?

Remember, it was the Republican right, led at the time by Ms. Sauerbrey, that skewered then-Rep. Helen D. Bentley, derided her moderation and defeated her in 1994. To them, the conservative Ms. Bentley was too liberal. Will they feel the same about Ms. Sauerbrey in a few years?

Basic rebuilding is needed in Maryland. The GOP's star candidate lost on Nov. 3 along with most of the GOP bench.

They need to regroup and devise creative solutions. It isn't enough for Ms. Sauerbrey to show up at black churches and talk about state loans to bolster small businesses. City voters want specific, practical programs aimed at helping them rid communities of drugs, crime and poor schools. Tax cuts aren't an answer. What would a Republican governor do to assist troubled areas?

The Bush brothers

Gov. George W. Bush in Texas won re-election on a theme of "compassionate conservatism." He showed voters he cared about the poor and downtrodden. He ran strongly among minorities. In office, he's been a pragmatic problem-solver, much like popular conservative governors in Michigan, Utah, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

George W.'s brother, Jeb, is an even better example for Maryland's GOP. In 1994, Jeb Bush was as stridently conservative as Ms. Sauerbrey. He lost handily, then spent four years talking to minorities and the poor, looking for solutions, getting in touch with people's concerns and fears.

This time, he won easily. He ran well among all groups, just like his brother. This time, he wasn't a right-winger with pithy slogans. He came across as a caring candidate focused on helping people, regardless of political ideology.

Ms. Sauerbrey discovered in 1998 that most Marylanders want government to fix problems. To them, tax cuts are secondary. First, they want better schools, a clean Chesapeake Bay, good roads and better health care.

That wasn't the GOP message. Instead, Republicans stood for host of negatives -- against abortions, against gun laws, against environmental laws, against government in general. They never bothered to tell voters the details of what they stood for.

Ms. Sauerbrey sincerely tried this year to broaden her message, to reach out to moderate voters. But the specifics were lacking. And she started too late. A three-month conversion fooled no one.

But if Ms. Sauerbrey can lead the Maryland GOP on a four-year reformation that gives the party a more compassionate and flexible view of government's role in dealing with pressing social problems, the GOP may give voters a more appealing set of options in 2002.

Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics," published by The Baltimore Sun.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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