Perils of politics on bigger stage

September 22, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

GOP GUBERNATORIAL candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. didn't use the words "repeal" or "rollback," but he did call for a review of two Maryland gun control measures.

He then got a vocabulary lesson: In political-speak, review means rollback and repeal.

His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and her supporters took the language lesson further.

Bob Ehrlich wants to undo a decade or more of progressive legislating that made Maryland a leader in the effort to stem gun violence, they said.

Bob Ehrlich reveals himself as a radical conservative lackey of the National Rifle Association, they added.

One Democrat declared that Mr. Ehrlich wants more guns on the streets.

Citing his vote to repeal a ban on assault weapon sales, another said the congressman wants to loose "weapons of mass destruction" on Maryland.

Suddenly, Bob Ehrlich of Arbutus found himself spoken of in terms reserved these days for Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Welcome to the big time.

For months, his team tried to insulate him from a negative advertising campaign they predicted was coming. Then the candidate made the attack seem appropriate.

Some campaign observers wondered if his suggested "review" hadn't been intentional, a decision based on polling that found sudden voter interest in examining these laws.

Campaign sources say that, alas, it was anything but planned. Mr. Ehrlich had simply become an extremist in the zone of candor, not a place you expect to find candidates of either party. The usual approach calls for rounding off the sharper edges of your political persona to broaden appeal.

All the more remarkable then that Mr. Ehrlich, a seasoned campaigner, would succumb to such a lack of discipline.

Then, again, not remarkable at all. Mr. Ehrlich comes to the race for governor from the halls of the U.S. Congress and before that Maryland's House of Delegates. In those venues, legislators speak with bravado and little caution. Candor and inside humor is coin of the realm. But it buys nothing in the wider political marketplace. It doesn't translate on the big screen: Voters don't understand the inside language, or they find the candidate less than serious.

Mr. Ehrlich is also a Republican, a member of Maryland's perennial out party. If Republicans couldn't make caustic, impolitic remarks, what could they do? You can afford to indulge the wholly unvarnished thought when you have nothing to lose.

It's an adjustment Congressman Ehrlich has to make. He's got plenty to lose. He's a strong contender, based on his own risk taking, an acute assessing of how the campaign might go this year -- and near flawless execution. His calculations have put him ahead of Ms. Townsend in two polls released last week.

As Election Day approaches, voters will begin to look more closely. They want to elect as governor someone of stature and maturity. A candidate who understands the game will show subtly if he or she can handle the challenges that will arise for a governor.

Mr. Ehrlich's comments on guns came on the heels of an appearance before a convention of child-welfare advocates during which he seemed confrontational, telling them he didn't agree with the Children's Defense Fund on a single thing.

Was that refreshing or reckless? Was there nothing he could have said to establish his child advocacy bona fides? He's a proud father, after all. People who voted to send him to Congress know this -- and, according to the polls, many other Marylanders have no sense of him as an opponent of children.

Who knows how much damage, if any, he's done himself. The risk for candidates who adopt a provocative style is that voters will look beyond confrontation to their judgment.

As for reviewing the gun laws, Mr. Ehrlich might be right. There's nothing untouchable about these laws. Their effectiveness ought to be questioned -- not to weaken them but to end gun violence. If that was the goal, who would object?

We need more candor in politics. We also need leaders with the ability to handle political problems without sacrificing principle.

Last Sunday I said in this space that state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV was the last member of Baltimore's famous Mitchell family in public office. I was wrong, of course. Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. serves Baltimore's 4th District.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears on Sundays.

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