Maryland's Republicans Allan Levey figures, have been namby-pamby too long. As chairman of the state party for the past two years, he is constrained: he can't describe the party he inherited as frayed by defeats and defeatism. But you don't hear him calling his predecessors gung-ho either.
But the Montgomery County dentist -- friend and fund-raiser for Prince George's County Executive Larry Hogan -- is nothing if not aggressive. He and the party's executive director, Tom Buckmaster, want to see more Republican legislators in Annapolis. And they have decided that the best way to achieve this goal is to make voters feel uneasy about the Democratic incumbents.
Thus was born the We-Thought-You-Should-Know campaign, a plan of attack that came to Maryland by way of Kansas and New Jersey where Republicans had used it with considerable success.
Simply stated, the plan is this: Target the legislative districts where the Democratic incumbents seem weakest -- either because of their stand on the issues or because of their margin of victory in 1978 -- and then send the voters letters focusing on what the incumbent is doing wrong.
At the close of each letter, after a recitation of the incumbent's sins, the voter is told: "We thought you should know" -- a line that, presumably, underscores the aboveboard, civic-minded motives of the state party that is sending the missive.
As soon as the first letter out, telling 500 northern Anne Arundel County constituents about State Senator Jerry Connell's free trip to Boca Raton to attend the state banker's convention -- and his subsequent sponsorship of legislation raising the ceiling on interest rates -- Levey endured some criticism from fellow Republicans who blasted the campaign as a negative approach to politics.
But he and Buckmaster have an answer to that. First off, they say the program is a proven success: in New Jersey in 1978, 10 senatorial seats were targeted and Republicans won all 10. Secondly, in a heavily Democratic state like Maryland, "it's tough to unseat incumbents and in order to do that, we're going to have to play a little hardball," said Buckmaster.
But unseat them in favor of whom? In many of the 12 or so districts targeted by the Republicans -- including Sen. Larry Levitan's in northern Montgomery -- it is not even clear who is going to run in 1982, much less what the candidates would do differently than the incumbents if elected.
Missing from the compendium of facts and adjectives in the letter to Connell's constituents is the whole notion of a political dialogue. Instead, it reduces politics to a public relations battle whose first objective is to make the other guy look like a villain, a fool or both.
In this form of political war, issues and ideas are so much surplus baggage, something to worry about only when it comes time for the League of Women Voters' debate.
Of course, incumbents' records are legitimate issues in a political campaign. And certainly the records of the Democrats who hold 121 of the 144 seats in Annapolis could stand some close scrutiny.
But the purpose of the We-Thought-You-Should-Know campaign is not debate but simple detraction -- detraction that is all the more effective in between-election years such as this one when there is no formal give-and-take between candidates.
Eventually, when 1982 is a little closer, the Republicans will recruit candidates to run in the districts they have targeted, and will provide these candidates with substantial financial assistance -- between $1,000 and $5,000 apiece, Buckmaster estimates. (In the past, the party doled out roughly equal shares to all Republican candidates, with the end result that the $50 or $75 or $200 in partly funds had little if any outcome of an individual race.)
Of course, there's nothing underhanded in all this, Buckmaster says. "We're doing everything in our power to ensure that the program is conducted on a completely honest, forthright and accurate basis," he said.
That doesn't change the basic purpose of the program, as Buckmaster described it. "We're attempting to weaken the incumbent," he said recently. "And the only way to weaken the incumbent is to tag him with his own actions that the voters find repugnant.
"There's a lot of ammunition out there," he added.
True. But as of now, only one side's doing the shooting.