In governor's race, too serious vs. not serious enough

I've been studying clips from the first two televised Ehrlich-O'Malley debates, and there's something seriously nagging me about both candidates. Specifically, there's something nagging me about both candidates' seriousness.

Like the rest of us, politicians can make two types of mistakes when it comes to seriousness. On one extreme, they can take themselves too seriously. This tends to be Gov. Martin O'Malley's problem. He's the smart, dynamic boy wonder who proved a white candidate could win the Baltimore mayoralty and still navigate its dangerous waters deftly enough to sail himself into a safer harbor few big-city mayors of this era are capable of reaching: the governorship.


But precisely because Mr. O'Malley wants to be regarded well and widely, he's all business — a hallmark of a takes-himself-too-seriously person. If he has aspirations for future office, he must learn how to personalize his policies. American voters want good government, but they also appreciate a good story and storyteller.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has the opposite problem. He is in many ways the more authentic, more organic politician of the two. His working-class upbringing compels. Mr. Ehrlich has his ambitions, and displayed his taste for power during his days roaming the second floor in Annapolis. But what politician doesn't relish the perquisites of office? And besides, if an Arbutus kid from a modest background can't get a taste of that kind of power every now and then, our democracy falls short of one of its loftiest promises — namely, that anyone can reach the top of the political ladder.


But — and this is visceral; I can't prove it — it strikes me that, deep down, Mr. Ehrlich has never been completely sure of himself. I've noticed a similar insecurity in Vice President Joe Biden, whose incessant gabbing conveys a desire for approval or attention to compensate for his humble origins and until-very-recently modest lifestyle. (Despite the fact that only 13 people have ever have served longer in the Senate, when he left to become vice president Mr. Biden was second-least-wealthy senator in that millionaire-dominated chamber.)

For Mr. Ehrlich, this behavioral tic reveals itself when he chooses to be petty and pedantic, rather than pensive and poised. The most obvious manifestation of this tendency was his attempt in the first debate to rile Mr. O'Malley by repeatedly calling him "guv." Such silly, condescending behavior is unbecoming of a gubernatorial candidate.

Political condescension also takes one of two forms: The first is simplifying politics into black-white options and results, when in fact most policy choices are rather complex, and the consequences of these choices are a murky grey; the second is being too cute, too casual when talking to voters. Again, Mr. O'Malley tends to exhibit the first type, Mr. Ehrlich the second.

Over the years I have sometimes given Mr. Ehrlich a rough ride in this space. During my days on Ron Smith's WBAL radio program I blurted out, live and on air, a few things I now regret. As I said above, the former governor has a compelling personal story, but he's also personable; he can be a bit briny, but he's also refreshingly direct. And he's more consistent, more pragmatic and more thoughtful than the radical, know-nothing Republicans currently drawing headlines across the country. (Yeah, I'm talking about a certain Senate candidate from our neighboring state to the east.)

Mr. Ehrlich was more disciplined and much more impressive in the second debate. About 13 minutes into the second debate he almost called Mr. O'Malley "guv" again, hesitated briefly and then self-corrected with "governor." Whatever his disdain for his rival, Mr. Ehrlich owes it to his party, the voters, the folks back in Arbutus, but most especially himself to comport himself this way for the remainder of the campaign.

Listening to him last Thursday in that second debate, one could easily imagine millions of voters outside Maryland who would be delighted to have someone of Mr. Ehrlich's caliber running their state. However, polls suggest that two weeks from today, voters are unlikely to give him another chance to govern the Old Line State. And although Mr. O'Malley has done much to earn a second term, should Mr. Ehrlich in fact lose, his defeat will mostly be a function of Maryland's demography and partisanship.

But at a time when the state faces serious problems and requires serious leadership, the former "Guv's" sometimes unserious behavior only encourages his fellow Marylanders to not take him seriously, either.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is