The Party Line

Yesterday, they were at each other's throats. Today, they're comrades in arms. With political endorsements, the maxim is always, 'That was then, this is now.'

Campaign Culture

September 26, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

It's easy to forget sometimes that politicians are not human beings like the rest of us.

It's not only that they are able to look beatific while listening to someone else's kids sing patriotic songs, or that they appear totally riveted on an inspection tour of farm machinery.

What's truly fascinating is that they can pretend that they don't despise each other. Or, at least, some of them can.

This subject comes up in the wake of all the rancor Maryland Democrats are directing toward Martin O'Malley for his perceived lack of support for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in her run for governor.

Hello? Were none of these people around when O'Malley was using Townsend as a punchline while deciding not to run against her? Weren't they listening? Or did it somehow escape them that when O'Malley described her leadership as a "big vacuum," he might have had reservations about her gubernatorial timbre?

Yet now Steny Hoyer and the rest of the Democratic clan expect the mayor to lift Townsend on his shoulders and proclaim her the answer to Maryland's prayers.

Only in politics.

Only in politics are you not expected to be accountable today for what you said yesterday. Nothing should be considered heartfelt, so everything is disposable. It's all part of the game, and the rules of that game as Tim Maloney, a former power in the Maryland General Assembly, observed, are simple, if cynical: "That was then, this is now."

As voters, it's hard to feel flattered.

The conventions of politics now require that O'Malley fall into line, and, right before our eyes, we see it happening. After last week's rebukes from his party's elders, the mayor's utterances about Townsend this week are noticeably warmer. Before our eyes, he is coming back into the fold.

And instead of this behavior appearing disingenuous, it is seen as upright, even honorable.

Only in politics.

`A poor sport'

Honorable is exactly how Mary Kane saw herself when her turn came two years ago. A Republican activist in Montgomery County, Kane narrowly lost her bid in the primary for a seat on the county council and immediately threw her support to Howie Denis, the man who had defeated her.

Kane says she never considered the alternative. "I said to myself, `What kind of mother would I be if I didn't come out in support of him?' What kind of example would I have set for my kids - other than as a poor sport?"

A "poor sport" is how Helen Delich Bentley was perceived by many Republicans in 1998 when she refused to support Ellen Sauerbrey, who beat her in the gubernatorial primary. Some Republicans still have not forgiven Bentley, who is now running for Congress from the 2nd District. "You're supposed to support the candidate of your party when you lose a primary," says Carol Hirschberg, a Republican activist who was one of Sauerbrey's chief aides. "That's just the expectation."

But wasn't Bentley just being as human as the rest of us? Everyone knew during the primary that she didn't like Sauerbrey, yet the rules of the game still required her to make nice. Few people are less likely than Bentley to make nice.

This week she didn't want to discuss her non-endorsement. "Oh, knock it off, that's ancient history," she snapped over the phone. She called back in a better mood to say she has always "operated independently" and that, in any case, Maryland's Republicans are united this year.

For Mary Kane, who is the Republican nominee for a House of Delegates seat from Montgomery County this year, it was not terribly difficult to back her primary opponent two years ago. It was her first run for office, she liked Denis, and the two agreed on the major issues.

But aside from preferring civility, Kane said she knew backing Denis was in her self-interest. "I think people admired the fact that I did not hold a grudge or walk away or ask for a recount." If she had played it any other way, she knows there would have been no other elections in her future.

"Losing politicians usually still plan to have a career in politics, and they need the party to back them," says John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist. "If they choose not to support the winner, not only could the party be damaged, but that candidate might not get party support the next time out."

As Geer points out, Democratic loyalists never forgave Eugene McCarthy for withholding his endorsement of Hubert Humphrey until the last moment in 1968. McCarthy's political career ended as a result of that failure. Some say there is a lesson there for the ambitious O'Malley, who risked disenchanting a segment of the party faithful.

Biting the bullet

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