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'Ultra-liberal bosses' make a fine foil for Ehrlich fundraising

The Baltimore Sun

Now we know. You can't live politically on talk alone. We learn this from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a talk-show guy as well as a politician, who has sent out a fundraising letter. He says he needs cash to keep his campaign office in trim. He needs a little operating scratch, a few bucks to keep the grass-roots watered.

Is he running for something? Won't say exactly. Join me, he says, in a struggle against "ultra-liberal bosses in Annapolis." This is known as the red-meat line, guaranteed to get right-wing juices flowing. A good fundraising epistle must have a threat - higher taxes, maybe - and a villain, preferably a liberal Democrat. (No problem, especially in Maryland.) Mr. Ehrlich does not disappoint. He moves quickly to suggest that Gov. Martin O'Malley has raised or will agree to raise any tax you can think of. There's a grain truth of in this.

Almost no one doubts the necessity for a tax increase next year or even sooner. Maryland faces a $1.5 billion structural deficit - something Mr. Ehrlich should have dealt with instead of declaring during last year's campaign that he had solved Maryland's money problems. But never mind.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman chided the former governor for indulging in partisan rhetoric after promising not to be critical of the new governor. "People want deeds, not words," Mr. Lierman said. A spokesman argued that Mr. Ehrlich has not been critical - as if criticism in a fundraising letter is just part of the game.

But why make such a promise in the first place? Criticism is good. It's part of the process. It helps to keep attention focused on a matter of utmost importance: the structural deficit and how to deal with it. Perhaps the former governor did not wish to be critical because he knows the fiscal picture was not as rosy as he claimed during the campaign.

With allowances for the rhetoric, we should be pleased to see that Mr. Ehrlich has not entirely retired from the fray. He is, in a sense, the Maryland GOP. The party has few politically bankable figures. Some suggest he left office with high popularity - but that may have changed after his campaign distributed false literature on Election Day. Voters saw through it.

And now he asserts incorrectly, once again, that Mr. O'Malley has suggested increasing the gas tax, the tobacco tax and the sales tax. Not so. The governor has adopted none of these approaches, though most or all have been urged on him by forces eager to make a start in the effort to deal with the deficit.

The letter includes at least one more staple of such appeals: The O'Malley administration "believes that government should be bigger and more intrusive in our daily lives." You can just imagine a rush toward the checkbook.

But the O'Malley administration has suggested it will use its new, computer-driven accountability plan - known as StateStat - to cut costs.

Democrats suggest that Mr. Ehrlich has some nerve trundling out a nasty missive in the midst of bipartisan harmony. The majority-Democratic General Assembly believes the work of government went more smoothly - and in a truly bipartisan fashion - with the Republican governor out of Annapolis. It doesn't mean policy was always right or adequately thought through, but it was more harmonious, to be sure.

Last week, while Mr. Ehrlich was raising money to advance the conservative agenda (or his own; we don't know), Mr. O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown were touring Harford County and its burgeoning military installations. They took GOP officials with them. Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican, could probably use help coping with the influx of families arriving as a result of the national base realignment and closure program.

One of the odd lapses in the Ehrlich administration was its failure to make much of BRAC - something that could bring more economic stability to the state.

Mr. O'Malley has made BRAC a major concern. He has made Mr. Brown his point man, establishing a BRAC sub-Cabinet. None too soon. BRAC families could be difficult to absorb, depending on how the program is managed. It means new tax revenue - but also demands for new schools, better roads, water resources in some places and many other services.

Maybe fear of big government and tax increases make a can't-miss fundraising letter. But BRAC is one of those things - like Katrina - that show why sometimes you need well-managed big government.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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