At Temple Emanuel in Kensington this week Lois Simpson pushed her coffee aside while her husband Harry folded a leaflet into a paper plane. It was a resume of Rep. Michael Barnes, who at that moment was up at the front of the hall, droning on about the issues. "Think it'll fly?" Harry Simpson said.
"Harry and I are really frustrated," Lois Simpson sighed. "We change parties each year depending on who's running. We voted for Steers in 1978 and I was leaning toward him again because I didn't like the way Barnes was saying 'Menachen and me.' But now I don't know. I don't know what Steers stands for."
The plane landed near a piece of cake. "I've made up my mind," cracked Larry Burman. "Many times."
"We had Good Ol' Gude," Lois Simpson said. "I'd still prefer him."
It's more than boredom and nostalgia that makes some voters in Montgomery County long for beatified pols of yesteryear, former congressman Gilbert Guide being foremost. As the race for Montgomery's House seat between Michael Barnes and Newton Steers draws to a close, many of the county's conscientious citizens, the sort of people who willingly peruse the Congressional Record, complain of political surfeit, a feeling of ennui and frustration that even here, in the last place it should happen, the campaign has either gotten bogged down in minutiaeor failed to find a focus.
Up and down Montgomery County from Silver Spring to Gaithersburg and before every conceivable audience, Barnes and Steers have met so often that they joke about being able to render word for word, cliche for cliche, each other's stock spiel. The two men have debated 36 times -- Lincoln and Douglas met but seven -- on issues ranging from the preservation of Alaska to the defense of Israel with stops for SALT, school prayers and a hundred sundry topics in between.
In the end though, what Steers and Barnes have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV time to emphasize has little to do with issues, or at least with the sort of issues that would be expected to concern Montgomery's well-educated, internationally minded voters.
Barnes has wrapped himself in his incumbency, and is saturating the metropolitan viewing area with his canon of endorsements and various hymns to his effectiveness: No bold discussion of issues from him.
And Steers has attempted to send his tax lawyer opponent back to private practice on the issue of constituent service -- not as improbable as it first sounds because constituents outrank congressmen in Montgomery and won't stand for run-arounds. As examples of what he calls Barnes' lack of concern, Steers has chosen the murky case of a federal whistle-blower and a Bethesda woman disgruntled with Barnes because he didn't help her get a no-left-turn signal removed near White Flint Mall.
Both of them, huffing that the people of Montgomery County deserve better, have traded charges and countercharges about "deceptive advertising." Barnes said Steers implied he had passed many more bills in Congress than he actually had. And Steers said Barnes depicted ratings from the League of Women Voters and his first nice letter from the National Taxpayers Union as endorsements that they were not.
Who is responsible for the tenor of the campaign? Barnes credits Steers, not a little delightedly since independent polls spot him a comfortable lead. "It's inevitable that the challenger defines the issues and the nature of the campaign," Barnes says. "Steers hasn't been able to find an issue. He's flailing around."
In 1978, when he unseated Steers, Barnes harped on his differences with the incumbent over the Kemp-Roth tax cut proposal. His strategy in 1980 has been to enfold and conquer, to undermine his challenger by embracing him, with praise, with note of their similar rankings from the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal standard. Even at the last major debate of the campaign Thursday night in Rockville before the Montgomery County League of Women Voters, the panel of TV journalists were asking Steers if the challenger really thought there were any differences between the two men.
"Not really," Barnes said. "The differences between us are a matter of degree."
To which Steers most strenuously demurs. "The differences between me and my opponent are profound," he says. "It's the classic case of a liberal Republican versus a liberal Democrat." Steers has spent much of his time stressing that the ailments in the nation's economy, as well as issues such as defense and federal spending require a Republican's attention.
Steers, who opposes common situs, picketing, accents his differences, with Barnes on labor issues. Barnes has received $60,000 from labor groups. "This race is between Newton Steers and Lane Kirkland. Barnes is a clone of big labor," Steers says.
In debates the candidates have diverged on such issues as school prayer, which Barnes opposes, and Steers has favored; tuition tax credits for parents who put their children in private schools -- Barnes says no, Steers yes; the decontrol of oil, which Steers staunchly supports; and SALT II, which Steers wants to suspend.
But on many issues such as equal rights for women and abortion, they agree, which is part of the problem Steers has had in depicting his candidacy as a vital, dramatic alternative to the kind of representation offered by the incumbent.
What is most surprising about the campagin in Montgomery is the provincial overtone in the issue of constituent service. Perhaps it grows out of the Montgomerian's obsession with details. A Steers' aide remembers a time when a woman called the congressman and said, "Quick get out here! The county's cutting down a tree!"
But as both candidates have been roundly praised as estimable men, even by each other, many voters are left groping for some intangible quality of character on which to make a decision.
"A lot of my political decisions are not based on issues," said one woman after the Rockville debate. "It's a matter of personality, and character. If there's one thing Watergate taught us, it's that you vote for character. Or what you think is character. You make your best guess."
Where does that leave a voter? Barnes and Steers are both men of detail. (Steers does not hesitate to tell an audience of partially comprehending citizens that "nuclear waste can be stored by a process of vitrification in which the radioactive material is encased in glass beads which are in turn sealed in hermetic drums.")
But questions of character are hard to answer in people involved in a fundamentally immodest vocation such as politics. Both men are of different generations and styles. Steers, for example, pays little attention to clothes; Barnes dresses deliberately. Barnes still has the rookie's gee whiz quality when he gushes, "I just happen to think the U.S. House is the greatest legislative body in the world."
And there is a sense of abstraction about Steers, a man who recognizes that his craving for order will not be reflected in humanity's affairs. "I've always strived for the ideal of talking about issues," he says. "But the nature of politics is the nature of humanity. Originally I didnT know that much about people, but the way to get things done is through other people. Philosopher kings don't get elected."
Yet both men share a peculiar modesty when asked, on one-to-one interviews, to talk about their own virtues -- the very qualities that they are spending thousands of dollars to broadcast to all Montgomery. It is as if there is something in the posturing and the aggrandizement of electioneering that embarrasses both of them, as an actor in a bad play might be embarrassed.