Zen and the art of leading

November 11, 2007

In martial arts, there are hard-charging styles like karate and soft techniques like jujitsu, where the point is to use the least amount of force to defeat an opponent. If Martin O'Malley could sometimes be overbearing and indiscreet as mayor, he's definitely grappling with a softer touch as governor - and it's a strategy that may be paying off.

While it's not entirely clear what kind of deficit-reduction legislation will ultimately be approved by the Maryland General Assembly, the probability of a compromise package addressing the governor's chief concern - correcting not just next year's $1.7 billion deficit but the long-term imbalance between projected revenues and spending - appears increasingly likely.

The governor's ability to reach out to the sparring leaders of the House and Senate, his rallying of key interest groups, his decision to create a bundle of bills that featured both incentives (new spending on health care and transportation) and sacrifice (a reduction in the formerly sacrosanct Thornton education aid) have all played significant roles.

Last week's actions by the Senate were not helpful, of course. The chamber's willingness to take much of the progressiveness out of the governor's income tax proposal was bad news for the middle class. The switcheroo with the sales tax was shameful.

Nor was the Senate wise to allow the $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax to be reduced to as little as 50 cents if the federal government chooses to increase tobacco taxes at any time.

To all this Mr. O'Malley quietly objected. No sharp barbs. No condescending cartoons. No lines in the sand. Instead, he encouraged the House to correct the Senate's missteps.

There is still much in the competing versions of the deficit-reduction package to oppose. Conditions are not so desperate as to justify the creation of regional slot machine parlors to bilk the populace. We'd also like to see more reductions in spending and a less-regressive tax package.

Nevertheless, Mr. O'Malley is on the verge of accomplishing more in a short time than many of his predecessors have done in four-year terms. That may be circumstance. The return of one-party rule to Annapolis was certainly helpful to his cause. But so, too, has been the notoriously brash governor's willingness to simply keep his cool.

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