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The 'Comeback Kid' and the acolyte Guv


JUST CALL HIM Bill Clinton Jr. That is how Parris N. Glendening seems to view himself. His staffers talk about the similarities -- and wonder if that could mean a bright future for Maryland's governor.

The two men come from impoverished beginnings in the South. Each was the first in his family to go to college. Both are "policy wonks" who revel in arcane discussions of government as political science. They became governors, trying to establish a record that would lead to bigger things.

And both men are supremely confident in their ability to persevere and eventually succeed.

So when President Clinton paid a visit to the State House last week, it was not surprising that Governor Glendening would stick to the president like a Siamese twin. Maybe some of that Clinton good fortune would rub off.

Mr. Clinton was dubbed "the Comeback Kid" for his dramatic rebound in the polls and his easy re-election. Mr. Glendening wants to follow that same route, reversing his low poll standings and crushing the opposition in next year's state race for governor.

Mr. Clinton overcame public distaste for his personal peccadilloes and the Whitewater scandal. Mr. Glendening is trying to overcome public anger over the pension scandal and budget crisis he created in Prince George's County.

Mr. Clinton found his comfort level in returning to his "New Democrat" roots -- a moderate, more conservative form of progressive liberalism that appealed to voters; Mr. Glendening likes to think of himself in that vein.

Yet both men have been harshly criticized for lacking a bedrock ideology. What do they really, deeply, passionately care about? What issues would they support 100 percent, regardless of the political consequences? Neither man seems willing to take such a risk. Both are consummate politicians for whom the prime objective of re-election overrides all else.

That's why both have obsessively raised tons of campaign funds. Abuses in fund-raising at the White House and at the Governor's Mansion have prompted public outcries for campaign- finance reforms in both Congress and the General Assembly.

Neither man understands the workings of the legislative branch. Neither served in the state legislature, which accounts for much of the friction they have created in dealing with lawmakers.

Victory through compromise

But both also have developed reputations for untrustworthiness, anxious to please that they will promise anything to anyone. And they will compromise on any issue, then declare victory and hog the spotlight.

Mr. Clinton's proclivity for fudging his position, for telling one thing to politician A and another to politician B, helped earn him the nickname, "Slick Willie." While Mr. Glendening has yet to be branded with his own sobriquet, politicians complain that his word can't be trusted, either.

Education is the big issue this year for the president and the governor. Both men are pushing proposals for free college tuition. Both are promoting big school-construction budgets and competency testing. Both are preaching education as the cornerstone of economic growth.

They also are pushing big tax cuts, though the rationale is sorely lacking in both Washington and Annapolis. Mr. Clinton's plan to balance the federal budget by 2002 depends on program cuts in later years. Similarly, Mr. Glendening's plan to maintain a balanced budget while cutting taxes depends on huge, unidentified program cuts in 2002. Their tax-reduction plans clearly endanger their balanced-budget objectives.

Yet in one area the Clinton-Glendening parallels diverge. It took bitter re-election defeat in 1980 to set Mr. Clinton on the right path. He had become too cocky, too arrogant and too ambitious. Defeat gave him a chance to reassess his approach, to develop a sense of humility and humanity.

At the moment, Mr. Glendening could face a stiff primary challenge next year and an even tougher general-election campaign. He remains a governor few people connect with. That sounds more like the Bill Clinton of 1980 than the "Comeback Kid" of 1996.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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