Finding the limits of 'no' as a policy


IN A JAMMED state Senate hearing room last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. delivered a vigorous defense of his plan to ease what some call an "access to care."

It's also called a medical malpractice insurance crisis, but that phrase does not come trippingly off the tongue. It won't fit on a bumper sticker, and it veers off toward too much information.

Outside in the lobby, a corporate representative of some political acumen declared that Mr. Ehrlich's position on the malpractice issue guarantees his re-election in 2006. Others thought the governor was overplaying his political hand, but the lobbyist persisted. It's what lobbyists do.

If the governor's plan is accepted, he will have solved a real health care problem, she observed. If the problem wasn't solved -- because he wouldn't accept a tax increase to pay for the solution -- he would win on his no-new-taxes promise.

The danger, according to an Ehrlich critic: This kind of thinking equates posturing with principle. Our lobbyist -- who subscribes to the common view that Democrats have been outmaneuvered by the Ehrlich side -- says the governor wins because few voters care about the details of public policy. What they want above all, she thinks, is no new taxes. Mr. Ehrlich can be as irresponsible as his critics claim he is and it won't matter if he just says no. He can undermine the ethic of community responsibility: the public-spirited willingness to pay your share of government's costs. So what? We're talking real world.

This analysis is a distillation of an emerging "Bob Can't Lose" theory. It may be shrewd analysis or it may be a really big mistake.

Mr. Ehrlich can't lose, according to the theory, because core political dynamics may break his way. Referring to the Democrats most likely to face him in 2006 -- Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- the lobbyist huffed a dismissive huff. "O'Malley has a straw house for a platform," she said, "and Doug Duncan wants to set it on fire." The city has such overwhelming problems, this thinking holds, that no mayor could run on his accomplishments.

So, win or lose on the medical malpractice crisis or on legalizing slot machines or on management of the budget, Mr. Ehrlich will likely run against a damaged Democrat whose treasury will have been drained by the primary. Mr. Ehrlich's own primary-free campaign fund could be $15 million to $20 million.

It's also possible, though, that this perfect political storm will blow out to sea. It's headed for the coast, but it could lose velocity.

As the special session struggled to a close just before New Year's Eve, Democrats shelved the governor's plan and passed their version of "access to care." They put a 2 percent tax on HMOs to pay for limiting physician insurance costs to 5 percent -- well below the 33 percent increase that forced the crisis. Various reforms were approved that would limit payouts in cases of malpractice. It wasn't as much as doctors wanted, but they urged Mr. Ehrlich to sign. Democrats have enough votes to override his veto, but still he said no.

In Annapolis, even when Republicans weren't a factor, there was usually some compromising. Democrats still rule in both houses. So compromise may be essential for a GOP governor. In this case, he could have claimed credit for guaranteeing access to care. He could have called the tax a mistake but a lesser evil than a shortage in the ranks of baby doctors. He could have looked gubernatorial and wise.

Democrats, meanwhile, lined up with the voters who are tired of partisan paralysis. They lined up with families who want some stability in medical care.

There are thinkers in the Ehrlich councils who worry about this group of wary voters. That's one reason the governor assembled an extraordinary team of ex-legislators to promote his interests during this crisis.

In the end, they couldn't take yes for an answer.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays.

Columnist Cynthia Tucker will return Jan. 10.

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