Song and Dance Has New Tune in Politics

Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening called his opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a "millionairess," a right-winger and a radical conservative.

She called him a taxer and a spender, a prisoner of special interests and a liberal.


Pretty tame.

In California, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called her opponent, Michael Huffington, a "do-nothing" political dilettante, also "secretive, threatening and greedy."


Missouri Senate candidate Alan Wheat said his opponent, John Ashcroft, was responsible for an abortion-clinic murder.

Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia called the president of the United States and his wife "counterculture McGovern-niks" and said Democrats were responsible for the murder of two baby boys in South Carolina.

My, my. Hurt us or not, words are the sticks and stones of political discourse, the language of would-be leaders.

So what do they mean?

More and less.

The White House said Mr. Gingrich's outburst was "silly name-calling." Name-calling, yes, but silly?

The record speaks for itself, at least in the short run. Partly on the strength of invective, Republicans have their first House majority in 40 years and Mr. Gingrich will soon be called "Mr. Speaker."

He had suggested that Mr. Clinton is an unrepentant liberal. This is not quite true. Mr. Clinton repented! As governor of Arkansas and as a candidate for president, he called himself a "New" Democrat and helped found an organization committed to the propagation of a new and unliberal dogma. Didn't work. Made things worse. Anytime an old label is preceded by "new," you know there is a deeper message, just as any term ending with "nik," as in peace-nik or McGovern-nik, means the target is subversive.


Mr. Clinton made his leap toward the center and won the White House in 1992. But he didn't finish the leap. While he was still in the air, the ground shifted further to the right and he seemed to reach back toward the left -- an awkward pose, to be sure. Hence Mr. Gingrich's assertion that he, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. McGovern, the liberal Democrat who lost his 1972 race for president, were fellow travelers.

In comparison to these rhetorical spatterings, the race for governor here was decorous. The candidates confined themselves almost exclusively to the proven epithets.

Mr. Glendening seemed to be getting a bit panicky when he referred to Mrs. Sauerbrey as a "millionairess," an uncharacteristic bit of sniping that made some wonder if his internal polls weren't showing just how strong she was.

She labeled him right back, and he seemed unable or unwilling to dodge the liberal tag. Like Mr. Clinton, he had tried to redefine himself. He'd gone the one-word prefix route, not once but twice: was both a "mainstream moderate" and a "Tsongas-style Democrat." Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, relatively conservative and business-oriented winner of the Democratic presidential primary in Maryland, had advocated the use of government as a facilitator for economic growth.

Evasive action, said the Sauerbrey side, thinking they had their quarry on the run. From what, though?

Roget's 21st Century says the word liberal as adjective means "progressive, advanced, avante-garde . . . indulgent, permissive, radical, unbiased, unbigoted . . . [moving on here toe the second set of definitions] bounteous, dime a dozen, loose, galore, handsome, no end and rich."


Whatever it meant, "liberal" was a dirty word.

After the election, Mr. Glendening was asked if he would think about further redefining himself. No, he said, but he clearly would continue to work on the redefinition he had started before the campaign.

"I don't think voters would respect me if I said, in view of the election, all of a sudden I'm not a Democrat, or all of a sudden, I've changed my ideology. That's not true. I am a Democrat and I'm proud to be a Democrat," he said.

As usual, the full answer went beyond a word, a suffix, a prefix or a hyphenated rhetorical curve ball.

"I believe in fiscal responsibility. We have run this government in Prince George's this way. We ended up with a $46 million surplus, family income doubled, 125,000 more jobs. To me, that's good moderate Democratic leadership.

"But I do believe in certain progressive issues: we very strongly need environmental policy based on stewardship of the past and future. I do believe very strongly that we ought to have some reasonable and responsible gun policy. I do believe in a woman's right to choose. And I also believe in public education.


"I will tell you as well, I do have compassion. I think we can be fiscally responsible, and still reach out and offer help to those who are most in need in society."

Mr. Glendening gave at least as good as he got. He insisted his opponent was out of step with the voters of Maryland. In the new climate, his attack risked giving name recognition to his lesser-known opponent and sending voters in the conservative direction many apparently found attractive.

Mrs. Sauerbrey had all the best of the debate on labels. The climate allowed her to avoid hyphens and qualifiers. The beauty of being a conservative these days is you sneer at the other guy's qualifiers -- and embrace the ones he throws at you.

A conservative, says Roget, "is a person who is cautious, moderate, an opponent of change, also, a bitter ender, classicist, hard hat, a middle of the roader, silk stocking, standpat and unprogressive."

Conservatives can sit back and quote Edmund Burke, the British statesman most often thought of as their patriarch: The only way to preserve political stability is by carefully controlling change and seeking a slow, careful integration of new forces into venerable institutions.

A conservative, says William Safire, the columnist and political lexicographer, is "a defender of the status quo who, when change becomes necessary in tested institutions or practices, prefers that it come slowly, and in moderation."


Is that a description of Mr. Gingrich, surely the nation's No. 1 conservative?

Perhaps not. Last week he said he would cooperate but not compromise. And here we thought compromise was a cornerstone of the American way.

Mrs. Sauerbrey was proposing a 24 percent income tax cut. Was this proposal too abrupt to quality as "slow, careful integration"? Not likely -- and Mrs. Sauerbrey, having fought to a tie in this Democratic state, might have claimed a strong mandate if she had won, so far to the right did her campaign move this electorate.

So what have Marylanders elected? A mainstream moderate? What is that? Mr. Safire's definition leads us to this: A middle-of-the-roader positioned slightly to the left of center.

Mr. Safire says a liberal is "one who believes in more government action to meet individual needs." Mr. Glendening probably fills that bill, too.

Mr. Safire observes also that liberal originally meant something like conservative: one who "resists encroachment on individual liberties." Sounds more like Mrs. Sauerbrey, who opposed gun control and abortion.


How to sort it all out?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern American liberalism, offered this image: ". . . say that civilization is a tree which, as it grows, continually produces rot and dead wood. The radical says, 'Cut it down.' The conservative says: 'Don't touch it.' The liberal compromises: 'Let's prune, so that we lose neither the old trunk nor the new branches.'"

Mr. Gingrich promises to prune about a third of the House committee staff, and to implement a whole new agenda as soon as he possibly can. (A nine-term member of the House, he faces a rendezvous with the issue of term limits, a concept endorsed by Republicans in their "Contract with America." He could argue that term limits are radical enough to seem liberal . . .if he hadn't signed the contract.

The language of blue smoke and mirrors evolves with the nation.

When Lyndon Baines Johnson faced a question about his political philosophy, he handled it this way:

"I am a liberal, a conservative, a Texan, a taxpayer, a rancher, a businessman, a consumer, a parent, a voter and not as young as I used to be or as old as I expect to be, and I am all of these in no fixed order. . . . I am not able -- nor even in the least interested in trying -- to define my political philosophy by the choice of a one-word or two-word label."


A dance, perhaps, but an engaging and thoughtful one. Too bad politicians aren't called thoughtful more often. There's a label we could live with.

D8 C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.