Mudslinging can be losing proposition
"Politics ain't beanbag," an aphorism coined by writer Finley Peter Dunne in the early part of the 20th century, has come to represent the rough and tumble of American politics.
But more and more frequently, our leaders and challengers are distorting that maxim in the belief that dirty, negative campaigns win elections.
Unfortunately, Gov. Martin O'Malley's re-election campaign recently descended into the gutter of political innuendo, distortion and outright lies, highlighted by his campaign's repugnant attempt to pin responsibility for the gulf oil spill on Republican challenger Bob Ehrlich.
O'Malley's "Drill, baby, drill" radio ad uses fabrication and quotes twisted out of context to portray Ehrlich as the personification of evil.
The governor's campaign repeatedly and erroneously calls Ehrlich a lobbyist for Big Oil when in fact the ex-governor has never been a registered lobbyist and has never done legal work for petroleum groups.
O'Malley's ad tars Ehrlich for voting in favor of bills in Congress that benefited oil companies without noting that by condemning the Republican candidate, he's also besmirching Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, who cast identical votes.
The governor's campaign also wrongly accuses Ehrlich's Baltimore law office of lobbying for Big Oil even though no one in that office has signed up as a registered lobbyist on any issue.
This reprehensible ad follows the steady drumbeat of vicious attacks on Ehrlich by the O'Malley-controlled state Democratic Party, the O'Malley campaign's first radio ad falsely accusing Ehrlich of leaving a huge budget deficit when he left office (it was, in truth, a huge cash surplus), and an organized effort by O'Malley allies to sabotage Ehrlich's Saturday talk-radio show last week.
These are strange tactics for an incumbent governor to employ so early in a campaign. Remember, we're still nearly five months from the O'Malley-Ehrlich face-off in November.
O'Malley, after all, holds most of the high cards in this game.
He's got good though not great favorability poll numbers. He's has a huge $5 million lead in fundraising. His political party has a lopsided advantage in voter registration and party organization. And he's got a solid record of accomplishments.
So why is O'Malley acting like a panicked, endangered politician? Why these wild, slanderous broadsides at a time when voters are barely paying attention?
Are his internal polls reflecting an erosion of support? Are his strategists alarmed there could be a spillover into Maryland of tea party activism that places the incumbent governor in peril?
Or are his operatives misreading the political signals and needlessly launching a heavy-handed, win-at-all-costs campaign?
The danger for O'Malley is that these nasty, negative tactics could backfire.
Independent voters and moderate-to-conservative Democrats might sympathize with the unfairly targeted underdog candidate. The over-the-top attack ads might convince them Ehrlich is the better bet, particularly if Ehrlich resists a down-and-dirty counterattack and continues offering fresh ideas and a new approach to governing.
Going harshly negative so early may prove a disastrous tactic for O'Malley. It's true "politics ain't beanbag," but misrepresentation and mudslinging usually turn off voters in Maryland. The governor would be better off taking a more traditional approach that stresses his achievements and his vision for the next four years.
What in the world is going on at the Maryland Public Service Commission? Its members are acting like antediluvian defenders of the status quo.
First the PSC dragged its heels for five years on removing a major obstacle to electric competition in Maryland figuring out how to handle bad-debt collections for multiple electric power suppliers.
The panel's reluctance to solve this matter retarded the emergence of a vibrant, competitive power market and deprived customers of hefty savings.
Far worse was the PSC's recent rejection of a comprehensive plan by BGE to install "smart meters" that could save customers hundreds of dollars annually.
The commission objected to charging consumers to install high-tech meters that would let them track their energy usage and encourage them to cut back power during high-cost times.
How much extra would customers pay? Less than $1.50 a month.
Is BGE supposed to install the meters for free? Or do customers bear a responsibility to pay for advanced technology that will prove immensely beneficial to them?
The commissioners also seem dead set against time-of-day metering that encourages customers to watch when they use their washing machines and dryers so as to avoid high-cost electric periods.
Yet this is one of the best ways to motivate people to reduce power consumption, regardless of what the out-of-date PSC seems to think.
Pilot smart-meter programs run by BGE for more than two years have been huge successes with verifiable results. What's wrong with making Maryland a leader in energy savings?
Instead, the PSC has undercut a major plank in the governor's energy initiative aimed at reducing power consumption. And the PSC now has placed in jeopardy a $200 million federal stimulus grant to accelerate the use of smart meters by BGE customers.
Is this agency out of control? The panel's actions seem squarely aimed at resisting changes that might help customers reduce their electric bills and lower power usage. Perhaps it is time for O'Malley to let PSC commissioners know that their job is to help, not hurt, Maryland electric consumers.
Unless the governor intervenes, this could become a volatile campaign issue.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and communications consultant. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.