Ehrlich's move toward middle about survival

November 23, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

MARTIN O'Malley got off a nice zinger about the Ehrlich administration in Annapolis, comparing it to Seinfeld, the "show about nothing." Speaking recently to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, O'Malley said, "The same might be said about the Ehrlich administration. This administration is about nothing."

He's good, this mayor.

He zings better than he sings.

But someone might want to remind O'Mayor that the "administration about nothing" went on line in January facing a $1.2 billion gap in the state budget, and there's an additional $700 million deficit projected for next year. Even if he wanted to, there's been neither time nor resources for Bob Ehrlich to launch a bold, new frontier in Maryland government.

Unless, of course, you count slots.

That's another reason why O'Malley is wrong. This administration is about something - it's about more gambling. Even if he announced tomorrow that he was resigning to start a new career in sunroom enclosures, Ehrlich would remain on the historical record as Bobby Slots. He's stuck with it. It has all along to me seemed contradictory to the conservative ideology to which Ehrlich subscribes.

If being conservative means adherence to a value system of firm, even fundamentalist, morality, how do you figure more state-sanctioned gambling as being to the betterment of the society? I thought gambling was a vice, a sin. I thought having solid conservative values meant working hard and paying your bills, not gambling the monthly mortgage payment. So why do we have a Republican governor encouraging slots and risking further degradation of the culture?

But let's leave the slots debate aside for now.

Let's look at what else has been going on recently in the Ehrlich administration.

There are signs that this Newt Gingrich Republican might be more progressive - dare I say more liberal? - than his predecessors in Annapolis and not as conservative as his detractors feared.

And that might be what O'Malley's talking about when he says the Ehrlich administration is "about nothing."

It's about something, but that something is not fully formed, and it might end up being something neither liberals nor conservatives expected.

I'm looking at my imaginary, hand-held Trend-O-Meter, with Pat Robertson on the far right and Ted Kennedy on the far left. While it's too early for conservatives to panic about Ehrlich, there are little blips on the Trend-O-Meter that definitely indicate movement toward the Uncle Teddy side.

Just as Democrats of the Clinton era appropriated themes from the Republicans to appeal to the American center, Ehrlich appears to be taking some progressive cues from Democrats to get himself to the middle.

1. The Ehrlich administration supports expanding programs aimed at rehabilitating repeat criminal offenders and better preparing them for release from prison. Over three years, the state will have an additional 4,600 openings in inmate programs for education, job training and drug treatment, and an additional 5,220 openings in a new 12-week behavior modification program to teach inmates to deal with conflict and real-life problems. That's hardly the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach advocated by many conservatives over the past three decades. In fact, had a Democratic governor proposed this, he'd be accused of coddling criminals.

2. The Ehrlich administration wants to phase out, maybe even tear down, the Supermax prison in Baltimore, saying that it offers no space for counseling, drug treatment or education services. This kind of talk would usually get the right-wing talk shows whining, but so far the Ehrlich administration has been spared any major criticism for the suggestion.

3. Ehrlich recently commuted the life sentence of a young woman, Karen Fried, convicted of taking part in the murder of a Baltimore County teen-ager 25 years ago. In doing so, the governor broke from the hard-edged "life means life" policy put into place by the "liberal" Parris Glendening, who refused to grant parole to any inmate serving life in prison. Fans of life-without-parole as appropriate punishment for murderers and rapists must be disappointed to see Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew going soft like this.

4. Ehrlich supports a $390 million education reform package known as the Thornton Plan, and his administration is committed to $250 million in health care for the poor or disabled.

5. In a radio interview last week, Ehrlich scored some quick points with conservatives by saying gay marriage "will not be the public policy of the state of Maryland as long as I'm here." But he also said that what consenting adults, presumably even gay adults, do behind closed doors is their business - a statement that definitely moves him farther away from the Pat Robertson edge of the Trend-O-Meter.

So Ehrlich is looking more and more like a man in the middle than anything else - not as conservative as some of his supporters would have liked, maybe not as conservative as some of his opponents feared. He must know it's the only way to survive as a Republican in Maryland because, when you stand for too much of something - too strident, too extreme - they come zingin' for ya.

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