Ehrlich: Run, Bob, Run' vs. Let's Be Practical'
A photograph of Lawrence Hogan Jr. appeared this week in The (Baltimore) Sun next to an article about his professed willingness to run for governor as a stand-in for the guy Hogan really wants to see in this race former Gov. Bob Ehrlich.
But there was something strange about that photo. You could clearly see on the wall behind Hogan a framed portrait of the ex-governor, and the picture frame was slanting badly.
That's a fitting way to view Ehrlich's current quest for the governorship askew and off-center.
His friends are of two minds. One camp call them the "Run Bob, Run" group fervently believes Nirvana awaits Maryland's woeful Republican Party if Ehrlich says he will take on incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Suddenly, they think, the state GOP's myriad problems will evaporate. People will flock to Ehrlich's cause. A conservative tide will sweep Maryland as Democrats and independents abandon O'Malley in droves.
The other camp of Ehrlich friends call them the "Let's Be Practical" group wonders how Ehrlich can defeat O'Malley and a dominant Democratic Party that shows no signs of splintering in 2010.
Emotionally, Ehrlich would love to test his campaign skills. As a former middle linebacker, he's eager to return to the political field of dreams he once mastered.
But Bob Ehrlich doesn't make important decisions based on emotion. He's a calculating realist.
For Ehrlich to run, he's got to be convinced there's a way to beat a modestly popular governor whose party holds a lopsided edge in voter registration and fund-raising. After all, O'Malley has done nothing wrong in the eyes of the Democratic Party activists. Indeed, he's pandered to them.
Yes, right-wing radio talk shows deride every O'Malley move. Their listeners express distain for him while heaping praise on Ehrlich. Yet they are a distinct minority. Ehrlich must appeal to a much wider and more open-minded audience.
Also, O'Malley will be running with a unified party ticket of incumbents. That will be tough to overcome. And unlike what happened this fall in New Jersey there's no major scandal in this state that might bring down Democrats.
So what will it take for Ehrlich to pull off a Republican miracle?
Running as a conservative ideologue, which is what the true believers expect him to do, isn't viable. In hyper-liberal Maryland, that would be political hara-kiri.
He's got to give voters convincing reasons for deserting O'Malley.
Saying "I won't raise your taxes the way he did," isn't feasible in the face of the worst budget crisis since the Great Depression.
Indeed, the last two Republican governors prior to Ehrlich each consented to major tax increases. Spiro Agnew was a partial author of the Cooper-Hughes-Agnew-Lee income tax reform legislation, and Theodore McKeldin, who had been elected by deriding the sales tax increase of his predecessor, raised taxes to pay for new programs in his second term.
The next governor, regardless of party, will preside over dramatically higher tax levies. It's either that or rip apart entire social programs and services. That won't happen as long as the Democratic General Assembly remains defiantly liberal and attentive to society's underclass.
What Ehrlich needs to do is present voters with innovative ideas on reordering Maryland's tax structure. He needs to show the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of current state programs and then explain how he intends to reinvigorate them even while trimming expenses.
If Ehrlich is branded as the candidate of the "no" party, he's lost the battle. He's got to separate himself from the quicksand of today's ideologically rigid Republican Party. Being against everything and favoring only lower taxes won't work in Maryland.
Ehrlich must carve out a new image for himself: a flexible, less-partisan problem-solver. His role models should be New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, both elected as Republicans but who have remained highly popular by being unconventional and unswervingly pragmatic.
For starters, Ehrlich should find a Democratic or a liberal Republican running mate with proven credentials someone like former Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry, former Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, former U.S. Rep. Connie Morella or former U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest.
Ehrlich also should pull together a bipartisan advisory group of experienced moderates and liberals capable of presenting voters with eye-catching "ideas for change" creative revenue-raising approaches and program initiatives.
It would be different. It would show voters Ehrlich has matured and gained new wisdom during his four years in the political wilderness.
Simply running as the "outs" versus the "ins" won't succeed when the "in" party holds so many high cards. Voters require compelling reasons to trust Ehrlich a second time especially after his first go-round as governor ended in bitter disappointment and angry gridlock.
So if Ehrlich decides to listen to the "Run, Bob, Run" claque, he'd better tell them he'll be running as an iconoclastic problem-solver, not as a Republican naysayer. He'll need to offer voters an entirely different approach to running government.
It's the only way he can beat the long odds and upend the entrenched political hierarchy in Maryland.
Barry Rascovar is a longtime State House columnist and a communications consultant. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.