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2006 Election &Politics Richard Falknor on 28 Nov 2006 09:21 am

Maryland Conservatives and the Ehrlich Interlude

This is the moment for Maryland conservatives to began rebuilding, now, not sometime next year, not waiting for the Maryland Republican establishment complicit in the many opportunities forsaken in the last four years, nor for some Maryland (possibly center-right) “leader” who will relieve us of the burden of hammering out practical, sometimes bi-partisan new approaches and of organizing county by county and local jurisdiction by jurisdiction.

But to proceed wisely and effectively, we first need to review the last four years.

Of course, it will be some time before all the 2006 Maryland voting numbers are thoroughly crunched. In the meantime, as the hoary maxim says, victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.

The Republican establishment, statesmen ever, in Maryland and nationally, put the blame for gubernatorial and Congressional defeat on forces for which, naturally, they cannot plausibly be held accountable, largely “the war in Iraq.”

Less frequently is the blame placed on the president’s ineptness as wartime commander-in-chief or as legislative leader, or on the Congress, or particularly the Senate for abandoning some first conservative principles. And certainly not on Republican incumbents nationally and in Maryland simply for ignoring their base. As Peggy Noonan so aptly pointed out last spring,

“One gets the impression party leaders, deep in their hearts, believe the base is . . . base. Unsophisticated. Primitive. Obsessed with its little issues. They’re trying to educate the base. But if history is a guide, the base is about to teach them a lesson instead.”

But some election numbers are already indisputable. Tim Pawlenty, in one of the bluest of states, eked out reelection as governor in Minnesota. Mark Sanford, many of his party enraged with his adherence to conservative principle and particularly his bringing two pigs into the state House chamber to illustrate the porking in the state legislature, triumphed in his reelection as governor of South Carolina.

The governor of Maryland lost many votes that he had received in 2002, but he still did better overall than the U. S. Senate candidate Michael Steele. Mr. Steele became the darling of the Washington, D. C. conservative commentariat, but his warm and fuzzy campaign for United States Senator was, to put it charitably, very light on substance.

A year’s campaign by Maryland and national taxpayer advocates could not persuade Mr. Steele to sign the no-new-taxes pledge, which most Republican U. S. Senators and the president had signed.

A useful benchmark Michael Barone gives us on Maryland is that in 2004, the president “[carried] whites 55%-44% and [lost] blacks 89%-11%.” Barone points out that 28 percent of Marylanders are black, and that Maryland and Virginia “have by far the two highest percentages of Federal and public employees.”

While it is probably true that the nation as a whole is more conservative than it was a decade ago, the elephant in the Republican living room is the battle between conservatives and advocates of governmentalism within their own party.

Willy nilly, the U. S. House Republicans focussed on bringing home the bacon. Outgoing Speaker Dennis Hastert reportedly underscored its importance to new Republican members. The president’s legislative leadership consisted of underwriting a greater and more expensive Federal role in public education, signing on to statutory restrictions on political speech, and risking budgetary and eventually national security through a vast new Medicare entitlement.

The Senate, under the tutelage of the White House, did its utmost to import poverty and hazard the integrity of the voting process through its immigration bill. Yet prominent Republicans in that body harassed the president’s efforts to protect the United States.

In Maryland, the new Republican governor called his 2002 election a mandate for slots. Too many General Assembly Republicans bought into this non-transparent tax that would create yet another slush find for even bigger government in Annapolis. In the words of the Wall Street Journal,

“Expanding a state government’s gambling empire hardly encourages those in charge of the purse to spend more wisely or thriftily. Which is why, as public policy goes, it’s a bad bet.”

As the Maryland Taxpayers Association warned in 2005,

Please do not be misled into believing that free-market and low-tax voices urge the growth of state gambling empires. They are more likely to see Maryland slots as ‘feeding the Annapolis beast’ with the money of society’s poorest.

Many Maryland conservatives know that the governor approved major tax hikes in 2004, and a state property tax hike in 2003. As his sometime chief of staff Steven Kreseski explained in 2003, “The governor just stated what he couldn’t accept [hikes in income and sales taxes], but there are 50 types of taxes he could accept.”

Over the course of four years, the now-outgoing governor managed to estrange himself from conservatives of many stripes: free-market and low-tax advocates, gun owners and gun-rights defenders, and traditional-values voices.

While not every Maryland conservative understood where the governor was on many arcane Annapolis issues, they certainly grasped his ham-fisted firing of Mr. Robert Smith from the WMATA Board for defending traditional marriage in a non-government venue and the governor’s jaw-dropping subsequent public defense of that act.

When the governor intervened in the 2006 Carroll County Republican primary in behalf of incumbent tax-hiking delegate Susan Krebs, he guaranteed a hostile reaction from the local conservative base which very likely diminished his expected plurality in Carroll County.

The Maryland Republican establishment either didn’t grasp or didn’t care that Mr. Ehrlich was a visible member of the Republican Main Street Partnership with its anti-culture-of-life, pro-governmentalist posture. After all, it had been decades since the Republican establishment had tasted the fruits of political power in Annapolis.

“Why rock the boat for some wingnuts,” the establishment must have reasoned. “Enough of bomb-throwers.” (Bomb-throwing is the Maryland Republican establishment’s term for nearly any principled conservative proposal.)

We now learn that the governor’s men are preparing a “book” about his “legacy.”

Perhaps any legacy prepared by those on the public payroll should include these lines:

“The governor did not grasp the moment when he vetoed the Wal Mart bill to offer an alternative to Maryland health-financing reform. He did not develop a bi-partisan approach to statutory eminent-domain reform. The governor did nothing toward systematic state and local regulatory reform. The governor did not try to reshape the Thornton Plan, a wrong-headed scheme to dump millions more into the failed Maryland education cartel. He did not try to head off the “gathering storm” of state pension liabilities by urging defined-contribution reforms. He did not try to privatize the state’s giant transport and other potentially commercial state activities, steps that could bring in substantial revenue. He seemed to be most energized when slots were on the table. Largely for this reason, Bob Ehrlich’s is a story of reform opportunities forsaken.”

The outgoing governor is not a bad public man. He is just no conservative; nor is he any kind of Reagan Republican, nor even a traditional-values-oriented low-tax Bush Republican.

Perhaps all of us Maryland conservatives bear some responsibility for the last four years for simply going along, trying to limit criticism to specifics, suggesting alternatives, and looking for common ground with Mr. Ehrlich wherever possible, in the delusory hope of convincing the governor to make incremental improvements along conservative lines. This cooperative model has generally guided the back-and-forth of national conservative groups with the Bush administration. But there was no back-and-forth with the Ehrlich administration.

The governor did not delude us. We deluded ourselves by trying to see what was not there. We must take care not to do so again.

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