In GOP's tumble, a loss for Maryland

November 26, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

After the recent election, Maryland's Republican Party heads for familiar territory: the political wilderness.

The results are bad news for the two-party system. They are difficult to interpret any other way. The GOP's only two stars of statewide potential were trounced.

Instead of gaining seats in the General Assembly, Republicans merely held their own in the state Senate and lost six seats in the House of Delegates. Leaders of the party's legislative caucus are being asked to abandon their shrill partisanship in favor of a more conciliatory posture.

Beyond the very Republican counties of Anne Arundel and Harford, there were few bright spots. The political party without a "bench" of rising leaders appears to be headed for another period of scrambling for candidates and retrenchment.

The most likely leader for such an effort, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., failed to consolidate his own and his party's resurgent power after his impressive 2002 breakthrough. He brought euphoria as the first Republican in 36 years to reside in the governor's mansion. But he will serve only one term, and many more years may pass before another Republican follows him to Annapolis.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, apparently believing President Bush and the national party could launch him into the U.S. Senate, lost his race by a substantial margin. An African-American, he was used by the national party as proof of its bid for a more diverse membership, but black voters in Maryland did not flock to his side.

He undermined his own credibility in the process. He posted "Steele Democrat" signs around the state as if he were a member of the state's majority party - not a great testament for Republicanism.

The ploy was transparently misleading but not entirely without precedent. In a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic, GOP candidates have traditionally hoped to exploit divisions in the Democratic Party - or to field candidates whose accomplishments put them beyond party label. Former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. ran as if he were a member of the Mathias Party, seldom calling attention to the Republican label. He didn't come close to claiming he was a Democrat - though many Democrats obviously voted for him.

Mr. Steele and Governor Ehrlich made things worse for themselves on Election Day. They bused homeless men to Maryland as campaign workers, hoping to distribute enough misleading campaign material to eke out a win in what they thought would be close races. Leaflets in a majority-black county, Prince George's, suggested, falsely, that the Ehrlich-Steele team had the backing of certain important African-American leaders.

It didn't work. Worse, the world saw a tawdry display of what their party tried to explain as routine, bare-knuckle politics. A professor remarked that Republicans, who had accused Democrats of taking black voters for granted, had taken them for fools.

All of this obscures the Ehrlich administration's very important contribution to government. Democrats, unchecked, had allowed Maryland to labor under the burden of spending commitments that outpaced income. Mr. Ehrlich hauled the state back toward fiscal responsibility.

In this, he and the state GOP illustrated the importance of what James Madison referred to in the Federalist Papers as "faction": opposing ideas and different ways of going about the business of government.

"Liberty is to faction," he wrote, "what air is to fire, an element without which [the fire] instantly expires."

The Madison truism comes courtesy of Michael Meinl of Ellicott City, who studied political science at Towson University. In a letter about the recent election, Mr. Meinl writes, "I fear there is a shadow cast on the integrity and liberty of Maryland citizens without the light of healthy, political faction. By nature we are humans, we each feel and interpret things differently ... No one party has the ultimate answer for our nation's future. Our nation needs a conglomeration of ideas because it is culturally divided and is quite complex. Democracy is founded on the healthy exchange of ideas and debate."

We got too little exchange during the campaign. Governor Ehrlich chose a modified Rose Garden strategy. He said he wanted to avoid promises, a devalued coin in today's politics. But promises are important. Made in good faith, they show where the candidate would lead. They answer the question: Leadership for what? They help voters choose.

And when they assert party principles (essential, again, for Voters) promises offer an indication of where Maryland might have headed under Mr. Ehrlich - or where it might head under the banner of some future Republican leader.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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