The blame game

April 30, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. and his Republican Party supporters should stop demonizing House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Their sore-loser tone is unbecoming and transparent.

Mr. Ehrlich has a state to run, one with many problems - including a deficit hovering around the $1 billion mark for years to come. He can't afford attacks on a powerful legislative leader whose help he will inevitably need.

Yes, Mr. Busch engineered a sharp setback for the new GOP governor, raising questions about Mr. Ehrlich's slot machine bill. Wise legislators, including some who want slots in Maryland, voted no. They weren't prepared to defend a bill that seemed to enrich owners of Maryland racetracks where the slots would be located.

So instead of pouting about Democratic tormenters, Mr. Ehrlich ought to concentrate on his job: doing as little harm as possible, for example, to important programs he promises to cut to balance his budget.

As governor, he sounds more like the U.S. congressman he used to be. In Washington, 435 virtually anonymous House members can hurl the rhetorical firebomb with impunity. In Maryland, governors must act with more restraint. Their words have immediate impact. Governors must convince a majority of the General Assembly's 188 members that their proposals are sound.

Mr. Ehrlich failed to make his case in Annapolis this year, so he's falling back into campaign mode, looking for help from the voters.

His Republican supporters are adding a sniping e-mail campaign, but they do their governor no favor. They seem oddly unwilling to grasp the new reality: They're in power. But they need to learn how to use it after having been out of office for 36 years.

Marylanders aren't blind. They will see the attack on Mr. Busch for what it is: ducking responsibility for a failed agenda.

Both men were new to their leadership positions at the start of the legislation session this year - the former speaker, Casper R. Taylor Jr., having been ousted, ironically, by a Republican newcomer in last year's election.

Mr. Busch opposed slots - but he also focused on the underlying issue: coping with the budget deficit. In the process, he made the House of Delegates a prouder, more assertive body. Did he play politics? Certainly. He believes Mr. Ehrlich would be unwilling to address the deficit with new taxes if slots had passed this year. That calculation, plus the bill's weakness, led him to oppose it. Even those delegates who don't agree with him respect his leadership.

For Republicans, the question is this: Do they want to do the hard work of governing or are they more comfortable as outsiders?

It's time for Mr. Ehrlich to come in off the campaign trail.

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