O'Malley rages against the corrosive power of drift

February 04, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

There are those who think of him already as a mighty poet warrior, a balladeer and a lover of words.

These are Democrats, to be sure, who see in Martin Joseph O'Malley an affirmation of their conviction that government is a force for good. Fallible and foolish upon occasion, to be sure, but - managed well - the engine of progress.

Some have criticized the new leader for moving too slowly now. Had he plunged ahead, others would have found the pace intemperate.

Some are simply unhappy that he has not embraced their agendas. They are urged to be patient, to relax and to enjoy a transition to the inevitable activism.

And, of course, to relish the verse.

Handsome oratory seems always to bring a promise of bold action. It's a complicated thing, demanding both rhyme and reason.

In his State of the State address last week, Mr. O'Malley alluded to the writer E. B. White, who spoke of the dueling nature of man's inner consciousness: a desire to enjoy the world and the urge to set it straight.

A governor or a legislator finds himself on that very path, hoping enjoyment will come from hard work and knowing there is always more of the latter.

Mr. O'Malley has drawn able men and women into his camp, empowering them to set things straight. Having done the personnel thing before in Baltimore where he was mayor, he knows the perils of choosing poorly or in haste.

Lest anyone think the new governor is all soft and high-minded about public life, one could scan his remarks last week to find thinly veiled chastisements of his predecessor. It was as if Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had offended him by finding little if any joy in the act of governing.

Maryland, said Mr. O'Malley, is chockablock with pent-up desire for forward movement. It wants attention to the concerns of families hoping to see their children educated - and fearing the cost is beyond them.

Years of "drift," the governor said, were unworthy of a wealthy, well-educated populace. Higher expectations and higher aspirations are essential, he said. Anything less is demeaning, he seemed to say.

What Mr. Ehrlich did, the new governor said, was defer a series of challenges that, if met, will make Maryland stronger. Rather than transfer and borrow his way through four years, the Republican governor should have been willing to say that even sustaining ourselves cannot occur without a willingness to pay the costs, the new governor suggested.

Mr. O'Malley promised not to squander his own turn at the helm. He began many sentences by saying, "I ask you for your support," a phrase that sought to make his audience - in person and on television - part of the solutions, part of the democracy he now governs.

He appealed for a new togetherness. "Mutual respect builds mutual trust," he said, "and important things done well make even greater things possible."

Addressing the acrid partisanship of recent times, he urged the 188 legislators to believe that "there are good and decent people on both" sides of potentially difficult debates.

Time and its unrelenting pressure was another of his themes.

And, of course, the virtues of government done right were evoked.

"Since all of [our] endeavors will require a working government, let us first resolve to make our government work," he said.

He promised "relentless follow-up," recalling the spirit of one of his Democratic predecessors, William Donald Schaefer. Do it now, Mr. Schaefer said - or else.

His own horizon would be expansive - even with the prospect of what he called "a huge looming structural deficit," the gap between spending commitments made in law and expected revenue.

He was throwing down the gauntlet - for himself and for the legislators. He urged them to have courage - to vote for a future worthy of their state whatever the cost to them politically.

To make that case, he will need to be both poet and warrior.

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

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