Here in a church hall in Kensington, addressing a women's club that is sympathetic and polite, Rep. Robert Ehrlich, Republican candidate for governor, must wonder why he even went to that debate the NAACP sponsored a few weeks ago. There the audience, not wanting to waste time, vociferously booed his opening statement.
Kweisi Mfume, national president of the NAACP, went to the podium to urge the audience to give dignity a try, but it was a bit late for that. Some of the audience had distributed Oreo cookies to insult Ehrlich's running mate, Michael Steele, an African American running for lieutenant governor. The cookies were a way of saying that Steele is not, as white racists used to say, a credit to his race. That he is black on the outside but white on the inside.
When Ehrlich said he favored affirmative action based on economic deprivation rather than race, his opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, gave a virtuoso clinic on pushing hot buttons. She packed references to slavery, lynching and Jim Crow into a crashing 28-word non sequitur: "Slavery was based on race. Lynching was based on race. Discrimination was based on race. Jim Crow was based on race. Affirmative action should be based on race."
Maryland's population is 27.9 percent African American, the highest percentage of any state outside the Deep South, so it is amazing that Townsend neglected to mention Simon Legree. This contest will reveal whether putting an African American on the ticket is enough to enable a Republican to make inroads among African American voters.
Ehrlich expects to do well with Jewish voters, who make up 4.1 percent of Maryland's population (a percentage exceeded only in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts) and a higher percentage of turnout. If he does, this will be another instance of a group being liberal until liberalism threatens something dear. Many blue-collar Democrats jettisoned liberalism because of crime and school busing to achieve racial balance. Ehrlich hopes that Israel's peril will make Jewish voters responsive to national security conservatism.
Weeks ago, Ehrlich made the incendiary, or so Townsend regards it, suggestion that because Maryland already has exceptionally tough gun laws -- more than 300 of them, he says -- perhaps the ineffective ones should be pruned before adding news ones. Now the sniper operating in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington has given Townsend occasion to remind voters that both her father (Robert Kennedy) and her uncle (John Kennedy) were killed by gunfire. However, she has yet to describe the gun law that could have frustrated Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan or today's sniper.
Ehrlich came to Congress with the Class of 1994, the 73 Republican freshmen who arrived breathing fire and promising to fundamentally alter the post-New Deal role of the federal government, beginning with the abolition of four Cabinet-level departments, Education particularly. Since then, the trajectory of Ehrlich's thinking has tracked that of most members of the Class of '94, who have come to terms with the fact that Americans often are rhetorical conservatives -- governmental minimalists -- but operational liberals. There is no substantial constituency for significantly cutting government.
His toned-down conservatism -- charter schools, tougher law enforcement, more roads -- allows this race to be close. But Maryland has not elected a Republican governor since 1966 (Spiro Agnew). It was Bill Clinton's second-best state in 1992 and sixth-best in 1996, and Al Gore's fourth-best in 2000. Which is why Townsend is emphasizing two issues that are liberal perennials -- race and guns -- and hoping African Americans will be retro voters, responding to dated racial appeals.
Many liberals are nostalgic for the bad old days. Harry Belafonte says that Colin Powell, by serving as secretary of state in a Republican administration, is akin to a slave. Belafonte, like many others in the residue of the civil rights movement, finds America, 40 years on, inhospitable because it has intolerably improved, rendering their endlessly recycled hyperbole intensely boring, perhaps even to them.
During the House debate on authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Rep. Pete Stark, a paleo-liberal from Northern California, cried, "Rich kids will not pay; their daddies will get them deferments." He meant draft deferments. It is almost unkind to awaken Stark from his dogmatic slumbers to notify him that there has not been a draft since 1973. And the Beatles have broken up.
In Maryland, liberalism's old melody lingers on. Ehrlich, who hopes to stop the music, tells the women's club that "the first time the race card doesn't work will be the last time it is used." But it is not true that there is a first time for everything.