In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's elections, The Post's editorial page endorsed Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor of Maryland over Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. It endorsed Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella over Democratic state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. for Maryland's 8th District in Congress. In nearby Virginia, it endorsed Republican Scott C. Tate over incumbent Democrat James P. Moran Jr. in the 8th District. It also endorsed a key referendum on the Virginia ballot that would have raised the state sales tax to provide money to relieve transportation problems.
Each of these candidates, and the referendum, lost. A reader called to ask what, if anything, does this say about the value of Post endorsements? I don't know the answer, but it is a good question. The editorials on these candidates and spending measures were all thoughtful, well crafted and informative, capturing the complexities surrounding the choices. Yet most voters saw them differently.
Editorials are not supposed to pick winners. They are supposed to be succinct, well-reasoned arguments why someone, or something, deserves support. They are meant to be influential, to provide a compass, to make you think. They can also make you mad. And there is always the possibility that readers will believe that editorial opinions, endorsed by owners and expressed through the editorial page, intrude on the coverage in the news sections. I can say with confidence that the "wall" between editorial and news seems intact and secure at The Post. But you can't blame readers who are not students of journalism for suspecting otherwise. The mail I get as ombudsman frequently reflects that. During the presidential recount two years ago, many people based their allegations of reportorial bias on the earlier editorial page endorsement of Vice President Al Gore.
The Post's editorial page has always had a booming voice locally. Its endorsements undoubtedly were important factors in the political rise in the 1970s and '80s of former District mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly, of Maryland's Morella and of former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder. But Maryland-based independent pollster Carol Arscott, for one, believes that endorsements "mean less and less every year now, especially with Republican voters, and the further outside the Beltway you get, the less they matter."
Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt says, "Endorsements are a peculiar institution, and every year we think about whether it's something a newspaper should do. So far, each year, we've decided yes." Hiatt says that his writers struggle all year with issues of taxes, environment, sprawl and transportation, and that it is an important discipline for the paper to confront and articulate those same choices that voters face, especially because no candidate usually has all the right answers and you "have to pick the best of sometimes imperfect options."
"Sometimes we endorse in the almost certain knowledge that our pick won't win; other times we endorse candidates who clearly would win in any case. Most of the time we want to have an impact, and sometimes we may," Hiatt says. That clearly seemed the case in voting for the Montgomery County Council and the earlier Van Hollen endorsement in the Democratic primary.
"I think our readers are independent thinkers who, if we do our job right, will take our endorsement as one factor to be considered, among many. A good endorsement editorial should offer an argument about what's important in a race . . . and then make a case why one candidate or another is better equipped to handle those issues," Hiatt says.
To me, the most interesting disconnect among the endorsements was the Virginia transportation-tax issue. The Post took a stance opposing the reelection of Rep. Moran in Virginia even though it was clear he would win, and the two Maryland races were known to be very close. The tax referendum, however, is the kind of harder-to-grasp, grass-roots issue on which the press, if it circulates too narrowly within only the business and political establishments, can find itself surprised and out of touch with an electorate -- one that in this case has had enough of sprawl and taxes and doesn't trust government very much.
The Post editorial, however, was not naive about the opposition. It took a principled stand, and that's what those pages are all about.