The People Give Government a Tap on the Shoulder


Havre de Grace. -- Uh, hello.

On Tuesday the people of the United States awoke, stretched and reached into the Washington kitchen to tap the government of the United States on the shoulder. The government, which had been trying to ignore the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs, still isn't sure what to make of the interruption, but it will find out.

The Maryland government, in its smaller but equally well-equipped Annapolis kitchen, got a similar tap on the shoulder. It too isn't sure what to do next. It had a lot of elaborate culinary plans in mind, with expensive ingredients and complicated recipes spread out on the counter, but now with the owner of the house looking over its shoulder it's suddenly beginning to wonder if there isn't any Hamburger Helper left.

All in all it was a wonderful election nationally and a pretty good one locally, with Marylanders once again demonstrating that they're not the buffoons their elected help sometimes take them for.

In contest after contest, a high level of voter intelligence was plainly at work. When there was anything resembling an alternative, government-as-usual candidates were sent packing, but when the option was less a choice than an insult, the voters swallowed hard and made the best of it. That's the way democracy's supposed to work.

Thus Paul Sarbanes, whose voting record in the United States Senate is completely out of synch with his constituency, was retained to keep trickling sand into the gears of the national economy for another six years. But at least he's a local person who keeps his nose clean. He owes his survival to that -- and to the humdrum opportunist from Tennessee whom the Republicans mysteriously selected to oppose him.

The candidates for governor are still duking it out at the edge of the cliff. It would seem fitting and just if Ellen Sauerbrey, the tireless Cinderella with the Jimmy Carter smile, could snatch a well-deserved victory from the absentee-ballot box. She carried every Maryland county, after all, except the two extending within the Washington Beltway. But if that's not to be, she's already done more for Maryland than any member of her party in the last 50 years.

She's levered the center of the state's political equation well to the right, back closer to where the public stands. And the strength of her campaign -- a campaign divergent from recent Maryland tradition in that it was based on ideas, not on personality or slogans -- already has her Democratic opponent, Parris Glendening, making Republican-sounding noises about the business climate, the tax burden and the overall size of government.

These encouraging emanations from friendly Professor Fuzz aren't yet persuasive. Like another New Democrat we know who made similar noises while successfully seeking high office, once elected he's likely to be captured by his old buddies and made to push their big-budget, lawyer-directed programs.

But maybe not. This is a smart man and a political survivalist. If he's fortunate enough to get into the kitchen, he might just manage to come up with a menu acceptable to most of those who live in the house. Perhaps he'll put his lieutenant governor to work reinventing state government.

(Leon Panetta, chief of staff for that other New Democrat down in Washington, was asked to comment on the overwhelming Republican victory. The answer was eerily Glendening-like. "The public wants to see some changes, and the president feels exactly the same way," said Mr. Panetta, not even cracking a smile.)

One of the striking aspects of this election was the massive turnout. This startled some of my favorite commentators, the ones who have been saying so earnestly that because low turnouts mean "apathy" it's important to get more people, presumably Democrats, to vote. But now they're opining that Tuesday's large turnout was disturbing because it demonstrated "rancor" and even "hatred" on the part of the voters. Go figure.

Locally, election night did produce one new television commentator with star quality. On Baltimore's WBAL, former Baltimore County Executive Don Hutchinson talked sense about the unfolding events with humor, detachment and insight. He even did this in complete sentences.

After the embarrassing, spoiled-child performance on election night of Roger Hayden, defeated in his attempt to win a second term in Mr. Hutchinson's old job, someone remarked that Mr. Hayden seemed pretty bitter. Yes, said Mr. Hutchinson moderately, but he shouldn't be. Baltimore County executives usually only last one term, and Mr. Hayden has had four years in an interesting and important job.

It was a polite, authoritative and well-deserved rebuke for the most graceless display of the entire evening -- and in the larger context, a useful reminder in this hour of general Republican triumph that victory can be transitory and that appearances still count.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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