Political mudslinging: the boomerang effect


YEARS AGO in Baltimore, a ward leader calls City Hall to say he has someone who needs a job.

"What can he do?" the mayor asks.

"Nothing," says the leader.

"Good," says the mayor. "We won't have to train him."

But, of course, a little schooling can be a good thing. It might have saved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a bit of embarrassment last week.

Mere days after his plea for civility in Maryland politics, the Republican governor had to explain why a political mudslinger was on his payroll. The mud pies in this case were rumors of alleged infidelities committed by Mayor Martin O'Malley. Mr. O'Malley wants to run for governor against Mr. Ehrlich next year.

The governor says he knew nothing of the rumor mill on the Web site FreeRepublic.com.

Though someone in government had done something sleazy in his name, Mr. Ehrlich initially declined to apologize publicly.

The man in question, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., was almost giddy after he was unmasked. There was a mission-accomplished quality to it. The whole thing might "burnish his image," he wrote on that Web site.

Mr. Steffen had been a spokesman for the governor, serving in several state agencies because he knew the governor's thinking, according to an Ehrlich aide. Did Mr. Ehrlich know anything of Mr. Steffen's thinking? Mr. Steffen liked to call himself the "Prince of Darkness." Did Mr. Ehrlich wonder what that meant? What did he think Mr. Steffen was doing? Growing mushrooms?

In Washington, quality dirt-throwing provides "plausible deniability" for the thrower. In this case, there's a plausibility gap. You can turn away but you can't hide.

Maryland is in the dirt collection phase of the 2006 campaign for governor. Among the political professionals it's called "opposition research," a cleaned-up term. Taken too far, it's the politics of character assassination, decried by Mr. Ehrlich in his recent State of the State address. The governor's appeal was met with guffaws among his Democratic opponents in the legislature.

And now we have Joe Steffen, who comes across as a fully articulated spoke in the wheel of Republican strategy.

In the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina, Republicans suggested that U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona had fathered a black child out of wedlock. Last year, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth tried to torpedo Sen. John Kerry's bid for president by asserting he'd done nothing to earn his medals in Vietnam. And the GOP suggested that former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee veteran, was unpatriotic. Mr. McCain lost. Mr. Cleland lost. Mr. Kerry lost.

But the Steffen gambit put some of the stain on Mr. Ehrlich. Given the GOP's recent record of slash-and-burn politics, the governor's men will have a more difficult time fending off the belief that he knew what Mr. Steffen was up to.

This Republican governor is taking Maryland through a questionable downsizing of government. Some welcome his no-new-taxes pledge, but others say he's shredding services and undermining the social contract. He's done a good job with a modest Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort. He's proposed some courageous things in the criminal justice area.

But one of his prime advantages - his nice guy image - took a hit last week. You get the feeling that some members of his administration are out of their depth: didn't have much training, needed some and didn't seem to know it. How in the world does someone on the state's payroll sling mud on the Internet and expect to remain anonymous? Or maybe anonymity wasn't the objective.

Until their recent string of electoral victories in the red states, Republicans were famous for overplaying their political hand, pushing tactics to the point of embarrassment. The McCain, Cleland and Kerry assassins show the impulse dies hard. Wouldn't it be ironic if the name they add to the list of victims is Ehrlich?

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

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