It's getting vicious out there. Politicians are lucky to leave office with their heads intact. No kidding.
Ross Perot's message to his fanatical followers is to tar and feather any politician who dares to disagree with the Perotmeister. On the free-trade vote, for instance, the word was clear: the Perot folks will destroy the naysayers in the next election. No exceptions.
Organized labor is no better. Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO sounded like the vengeful voice of God in ominously pledging to punish members of Congress who dared to disagree with labor on the North American Free Trade Agreement. As for Bill Clinton, the unionists apparently want to link arms with the Perotistas, storm the White House and hang the president from a lamp post.
As the lunatic news anchor, Howard Beal, said in the movie classic "Network," "We're mad as hell and we're not gonna to take it any more."
The tone of political life has changed. Manners are fast disappearing. Negative advertising -- often vicious and almost always a gross distortion of the truth -- is looked upon as the wave of the future. The "big lie" is making a comeback, too.
Republican political consultant Ed Rollins talks about $500,000 in walk-around money given to black churches as a bribe to persuade them not to get out the vote in the New Jersey election for governor. It was all a fabrication, he now claims.
And there was Maryland's Rep. Helen Bentley, a candidate for governor, no less, appearing on a Baltimore radio station decrying the attempted bribe she received "in the high six figures" to switch on the NAFTA vote. This, too, turned out to be absolute balderdash. In essence, the Bentleyites now say it never happened.
Somehow, a growing segment of the American public has gotten the impression that it's no longer enough to beat a candidate -- you must destroy him. And no longer is it acceptable to hold a point of view on the basis of principle. That is now looked upon as a cowardly and craven thing to do. Either agree with the mob, or the mob will tear you apart.
If Governor Schaefer were running for re-election, that's the sort of emotional response he would face. Mr. Schaefer is no shrinking violet. He says what he means and stands up for what he believes. He is willing to take unpopular stands if he thinks he is right. Raise taxes because the need is great. Fight for handgun control because violence in this country is out of control. For his courage, Mr. Schaefer's poll rankings have plummeted and he has faced an unseemly barrage of nasty, vicious abuse.
Look at what has happened to Baltimore County School Superintendent Stuart Berger. For daring to make changes in a status quo school system, Mr. Berger has been pilloried by furious parents and an out-for-blood teachers union. They don't want him to reverse his decisions; they want to extract a pound of flesh. Fire him. Tear him apart. Let the buzzards pick at the remains.
(Baltimore County is especially rough territory. The yahoos love to stomp on any politician who gets out of line. Look at what they did to County Executive Dennis Rasmussen when he dared to raise taxes in order to modernize and improve local services: They roasted him, humiliated him and then danced on his political grave after his crushing defeat.)
The irrationality of protesters is mind-boggling. They ignore common sense. All they seek is vengeance. Look at the recent November elections in New Jersey and New York City.
In New Jersey, Gov. Jim Florio was "punished" by his own Democratic constituency for taking a tough line on welfare programs and neglecting to stress in his campaign his commitment to New Jersey blacks. So this group "punished" him by not voting in the election. Of course, this group now ends up with a far less sympathetic governor for the next four years. That's not a victory, it's a self-inflicted defeat.
In New York, Jews angry at the way Mayor David Dinkins responded to rioting in a Hasidic area of Brooklyn "punished" him by voting to elect Republican Rudolph Giuliani, whose conservative GOP philosophy might not be to their liking on a host of issues.
And in Maryland, national union leaders are vowing to go after Rep. Steny Hoyer for opposing labor on NAFTA. This, despite the fact he is a solid union vote on most matters, casting 75 percent of his votes in 1992 and 92 percent of his votes in 1991 the way labor wanted. That's not good enough.
What if labor succeeds in its goal and defeats Mr. Hoyer next year? What will it win? Labor's reward will be Larry Hogan Jr., a true-blue Reaganite and an ardent pro-business politician. That would be a Pyrrhic victory.
Returning sanity to the political scene seems a long way off. There are early signs that Marylanders could get a bad dose of the Rush Limbaugh School of Politics in next year's elections.
That would be tragic. Our statewide campaigns have in recent decades avoided the low-road approach; Maryland voters thus have been able to make choices based on reasoned political positions, not vitriol and emotion. But in today's poisoned political climate, keeping Maryland's elections on the high road is going to be tough.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.