Partisan fear and loathing

January 18, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

BIPARTISANSHIP IS like the weather. Everyone (in politics) talks about it. Nobody does anything about it.

In Annapolis these days, people also talk about "divided government." Compromise, the word or deed, is hardly ever heard.

It's a vocabulary lesson of value now because issues of great significance can be clarified (at best) or distorted (at worst) when the partisan instinct prevails.

Is it partisanship to oppose any sort of broad-based tax increase - the position currently advanced by the Republicans in Annapolis?

Is it partisanship to argue that only a sales or income tax increase can get Maryland out of its budget jam without injury - as Democrats insist?

The answer is probably yes in both cases. In both cases, though, partisanship gets in the way of reconciliation, or could. The conflict of partisan points of view may not be such a bad thing - up to a point.

So, what does the word bipartisan mean? It means sitting down and reasoning together. It means allowing partisan lines of demarcation to fade. It means solving problems for the greater good without regard to one's party loyalties. It means the word seldom really applies in the real world of politics.

At the very least, it's a more difficult goal than all the talk would suggest.

Annapolis and Maryland see more raw partisanship these days because Republicans haven't been in a position to throw their partisan weight around for 36 years or so. For them, trying to outlaw partisanship is changing the rules in mid-game. Won't happen.

Still, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his GOP team make the usual bows in the direction of bipartisanship - reaching across the proverbial aisle to their Democrat confreres - but they're equally anxious to assert their Republican prerogatives.

It's not a bad thing in either case. We are, for the most part, a two-party democracy founded in the belief that a thorough, spirited exchange of views leads to a better result. Differences between parties invigorate the body politic, make it healthy and robust.

The problem comes with the excessive application of partisan relish to every bit of public business.

"There are times," says GOP Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt of Cambridge, "when you really need the difference. That's really important. It's a fine line between presenting and articulating that difference and personalizing that difference. The beauty of being here in this Assembly and being able to disagree and work on building consensus or work on yielding."

But, says Donald C. Fry, a former delegate who is now executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, divided government in a state such as Maryland poses real problems. Are the problems merely partisan or deeply substantive?

What's the best way out of a structural deficit? Analyzing the problem, identifying solutions and choosing one? An immediate, broad-based tax increase or wholesale downsizing of government? Slot machines? A combination of slots and taxes?

Delegate Eckardt says the beauty of the Assembly is the opportunity for people to refine and sharpen their views in an honest exchange of those views - as long as the issues aren't personalized.

Mr. Fry says, "People do want to do the right thing, but there are substantive differences. There are some philosophical differences, and you have to deal with who gets credit for what is done or not done. And that is the biggest difference people are wrestling with now."

If not, partisanship will lead to gridlock. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller observed last week that divided government and partisanship are the order of the day from Congress to state houses across the country.

Mr. Miller said he sees his own role as that of "bridge builder," statesman and pragmatist. He wants to support Governor Ehrlich's quest for slots. He's also philosophically in tune with House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who says slots are the wrong way to go and won't solve the problem: They'll produce no money for up to 18 months - and then not enough to close the budget gap. A sales tax, underemployed in Maryland and certainly not brought into line with today's economy, is the way out, he says.

Mr. Ehrlich says a sales tax increase is out. He wants to remove the T-word from the lexicon of Annapolis.

Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. says the C-word - compromise - may work its way into the dialogue. If not, look for more of the P-word.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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