Let's try to define some political terms and see how various folks in Annapolis measure up on the important issue of tax cuts.
First, there's conservative, which is definitely the thing to be these days. According to my Webster's, it means "conserving or tending to conserve . . . tending to preserve established traditions or institutions and to resist or oppose any changes in these. . . ."
When it comes to tax cuts, the person closest to that definition is -- surprise -- Gov. Parris Glendening, the guy blasted as a liberal Spendening in the 1994 election.
He's pushing hardest to conserve state financial reserves, maintain established programs and traditions while vigorously resisting any changes in the way the state runs its fiscal affairs. No tax cuts this year, he says, because he wants to conserve precious tax revenue for fear of what Congress may do.
Next, look at the definition for liberal -- something you don't want to be accused of any more. Webster says it is someone "favoring reform or progress . . . specif., favoring political reform tending toward democracy, personal freedom of the individual. . . ."
Which group in the State House fits that description?
None other than right-wing Republicans. They want immediate tax relief and deep budget cuts. Why such reform? To return personal freedom to the individual taxpayer. Republican leaders insist taxpayers should decide how to spend the money the governor wants to place in reserve in case of fiscal troubles.
But there's a third term worth pondering -- radical: Someone "favoring fundamental or extreme change; specif., favoring basic change in the social or economic structure."
You won't find much more basic change in this state's social and economic structure than GOP plans to chop income taxes 24 percent and cut spending to pay for it.
So in this battle, the conservative turns out to be the Democrat derided for leaning too far to the left, and the radical liberals are Republicans on the extreme right.
Further muddying the picture has been the stance of Democratic legislators. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, a Western Maryland conservative, pushed a plan that could only be defined as liberal. He, too, wanted to turn back tax money to citizens and let them decide how to use it. But he stopped short of the radicalism of the Republicans.
In the other chamber, Sen. Barbara Hoffman, a Baltimore liberal and chief budget leader, took a tough stand against the Taylor plan. She sided with the governor in wanting to preserve state revenues. Definitely conservative.
And finally, Sen. John A. Cade, the chamber's top fiscal curmudgeon and most powerful Republican, brought some much-needed consistency. Mr. Cade saw the folly in rushing into a tax cut that would be both radical and risky. He opted for a cautious (i.e., conservative) approach: Preserve reserves, keep a tight rein on state spending and wait a year to see what happens in Washington.
In the end, the "conservatives" won. There will be no tax cut this year. Money will be set aside in reserve funds for one of three purposes: In case of recession; in case of federal cutbacks, or in case things go well and the state can afford to lower taxes in 1995.
By the time it was over, Speaker Taylor had gravitated to the Glendening side after he was sure his fellow House Democrats understood the dangers of the House Republicans' radical liberalism.
Only the GOP delegates rose to plead for liberal reforms in this state's existing tax and spending policies.
As Alice put it while in Wonderland, "Curiouser and curiouser!"
But if you think there's confusion in Maryland take a peek at the situation in Washington, where Newt Gingrich talks of a "Republican revolution." Revolution by its very nature is a radical notion. And in Mr. Gingrich's context it is a liberal notion, too. He's after extreme changes that lead to more personal freedom from government.
Democrats are left to defend the lonely battlements of the existing order, trying to preserve established institutions. That makes Bill and friends conservatives.
The Newtonians in Washington have moved so far right they're now on the left; the Clintonians have tried to offset Republican victories by shifting to the right.
Conservatives and liberals. No wonder folks sometimes feel as though they need a score card to figure out which side each player is on.
E9 Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.