Back to basics for Maryland GOP

The Md. GOP need not moderate its message, but rather the party must develop a message.

January 13, 1999|By Doug Munro

REGARDLESS of how President Clinton's impeachment trial turns out, U.S. House Republicans have risked their national reputation with their campaign to unseat a popular president for deeds the public doesn't think of as impeachable offenses.

If Mr. Clinton's popularity remains high, the GOP will pay -- for voters will have their revenge.

That's why Maryland Republicans must set out to carve an independent identity. This is particularly important because, with the exception of the two Ellen Sauerbrey gubernatorial campaigns, the Maryland GOP has not paid enough attention to policy matters. As a result, many voters haven't seen a need to become Republicans.

The Maryland GOP needs to publish position papers and make it clear where it stands on the topics of the day.

Contrary to the advice offered by some people in the wake of Ms. Sauerbrey's defeat by incumbent Gov. Parris Glendening in November, the GOP need not moderate its message, but rather the party must develop a message.

Certainly Republicans are known for certain broad themes such as lower taxes and fewer regulations. But ask the average person what he knows beyond that and chances are you will receive a blank stare.

Many left-wing responses to the issues du jour are most assuredly absurd, but at least the public gives liberals credit for trying. Republicans are not credited with presenting attractive alternatives -- for frequently they have none.

Consequently, Republicans are simply considered to be against doing anything about Chesapeake Bay pollution, child-care concerns of middle-income families and suburban sprawl -- among other issues.

No party so perceived -- correctly or not -- can expect to win the governorship anytime soon, especially because no GOP coattails will result from the next presidential election. Consequently, there must be specific reasons to vote for state Republicans. This requires a professional approach to the development of public policy.

Take the Glendening administration's "smart growth" initiative to limit suburban sprawl. State Republicans have no real answer to this legislation, save that they are against it.

This is unfortunate because opposition to "smart growth" is inconsistent with conservatives' traditional advocacy of county accountability for state funds. Under the plan, state subsidies for suburban development may be used only for state-approved purposes, such as revitalizing existing suburbs, not creating new ones.

An alternative response might be to suggest -- correctly -- that "smart growth" represents only one side of the equation. Since most people who move from Baltimore relocate to one of five nearby counties, the sprawl situation has two obvious components: residents' desire to leave the city and the availability of suburban housing.

Because "smart growth" only tries to limit newly built suburban housing and doesn't address why so many people wish to leave Baltimore, it will ultimately have relatively little impact.

But the point is this: Simply telling people they should not be concerned about sprawl, as the GOP essentially has done, is a losing proposition. For patently the people are concerned. A superior response would be to develop a rival plan that takes Marylanders' concerns into account -- and fully addresses the root cause of the problem.

Ignoring the public's apprehensions does not win elections. This is one of the burdens of living in a democracy. To employ a business-world metaphor, when your competitor brings a shoddy product onto the market, the correct response is not to continually repeat that buyers do not really need it.

Instead, the shrewd business person develops an alternative and superior product. For the supposed party of business interests, Republicans in Maryland have, in this respect, displayed extraordinarily little business acumen.

Douglas P. Munro is president of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research. This article reflects his views, not those of the Calvert Institute or its board.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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