Editor’s Note: A version of this article appears in the current National Review.
Republicans and conservatives suffered a lot of losses last month, on Election Day. In fact, they — we — had almost nothing but losses! And one of the toughest we sustained was that of Robert L. Ehrlich, the governor of Maryland. He was a true-blue Reagan conservative, and he presided over one of the most liberal and Democratic states in the Union. He won an amazing election in 2002, but lost this year to Martin O’Malley, the mayor of Baltimore.
That 2002 election seemed a special gift: Ehrlich beat a Kennedy, lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was a national star. He did so by a margin of 51 percent to 48. Ehrlich has said many times that conditions had to be perfect for him to win, and that he and his team had to run a perfect campaign. The conditions were, indeed, perfect, and so was the campaign. But Ehrlich could not manage reelection, losing to the relatively likable and canny O’Malley by seven points. Thus has one of the brightest Republican stars been sidelined, maybe permanently.
An unusual fellow, Ehrlich: He went to Princeton, doing his thesis on Solzhenitsyn. He then went to Wake Forest Law School, and practiced for a bit. He entered politics in the mid-1980s, winning election to the Maryland House of Delegates. Then he won a seat in the U.S. Congress, in the smash Republican year of 1994. When he ran for governor, he did so as an unapologetic Reagan conservative. That was supposed to be poison in Maryland. He campaigned against gun control, against a minimum-wage hike, and against intrusive government generally. He is not the type to give different speeches to different audiences, either: He talks to everyone pretty much the same way.
In German, his name means straightforward, honest, direct — and no one denies that Ehrlich is that. He has dismissed multiculturalism as “bunk” and “crap.” No Republican — no white Republican — is better at calling the Democrats on racial demagoguery. And he pressed his points in every forum imaginable: from sports shows on the radio to black churches.
In his term as governor, his approval rating never dipped below 50 percent. It stood at about 55 when he lost on Election Day. He had never lost an election in his life, and, a couple weeks after, talked freely (as always): “Losing stinks. That’s just the fact of it.” Moreover, he expected to win, particularly given his approval rating. Ehrlich points out that 55 percent is “pretty good, for an eastern Republican who governed from the right.”
And what does he think about why he lost? He begins his answer by saying that he has forbidden his staff to “engage in that sort of speculation.” He has also forbidden himself — “because I hate whiners, I hate excuse-makers, and when you lose, you lose.” That said, he offers a few thoughts. Polls told him that, while his administration was popular, voters were “not happy with Washington.” Simply put, “we endeavored to separate our record from the national mood, and we just couldn’t pull it off in a blue state.” Democrats made Ehrlich synonymous with George W. Bush.
Getting into some demographics, the governor notes that the big difference between 2002 and 2006 was white women: Last time, he won them by a lot; this time, he won them by only a narrow margin. “White, moderate, Democratic-leaning women went home, to the Democratic party.”
He confides that, in the days after the election, e-mails and phone calls poured in from the voters, and they often went something like this: “Dear Governor: Congratulations on your administration, which I supported. I really liked what you did. But I have to tell you that I voted against you — I wanted to send a message to Washington. If you choose to run for something in the future, however, please know that you can count on my support.” That sort of note or phone call, says Ehrlich, is painful to absorb.
He has sharp words for the victors, the Democratic party. They are not the traditional Democratic party, he says. They are a “hard-Left, AFSCME, trial-lawyer, teachers’-union party, and they play for keeps, unlike business.”
Ah yes, business. Ehrlich is famous for chastising businessmen — his natural constituency — and to their faces. He once accused them of having “Patty Hearst Syndrome,” meaning they were soft on their captors and abusers. He says that businessmen like to go with winners, or probable winners, rather than politicians who support their interests (low taxation, light regulation, etc.). And they are miserable organizers.
The governor cites an example: Facing a Democratic legislature — the only kind of legislature Maryland would have — he defeated an increase in the sales tax. So the retail merchants decided to have a thank-you event for him — to which only 100 people showed up. Ehrlich turned to an aide and said, “This is the problem. The teachers’ unions can put 10,000 people outside my house overnight, but when we deliver for business . . .” Not that the merchants weren’t appreciative, says Ehrlich. It’s just that they have work to do — shops to run — and little time for political activism. By contrast, “trial lawyers and other people who feed off government” are in politics virtually full-time — “and that is a political dilemma for anyone who approaches the issues as we do.”
As governor, Ehrlich tried very hard to implement tort reform: He spent a year on it, and “a ton of political capital,” running around the state, getting doctors onboard, generating some excitement. Then the trial lawyers — national ones — came in, and “I knew we were done.” They squashed it like a bug.
The Ehrlich administration had its accomplishments, however. The governor takes pride in his fiscal stewardship, noting that he made government smaller, killed billions in proposed taxes, and turned a big deficit into a big surplus. He consistently emphasized economic growth — looking out for the private sector — and Maryland flourished. He also takes pride in having been a sensible environmentalist, and in the “racial diversity” of his appointments: He did not go in for quotas, however; he always kept merit uppermost. As he puts it, “I stayed true to my conservative principles while reflecting Maryland, which was my goal.”
Many conservatives question whether there is any constituency at all for small government — and Ehrlich is one of those conservatives. He recalls being in Congress, where “so many people talked conservative and acted liberal. I saw safe-seat members unwilling, or unable, to vote for appropriations cuts,” because they feared offending this group or that. In Maryland, Ehrlich did a lot of cutting, “which was very difficult to do, and tough, hard medicine. I stepped on a lot of toes,” including those of people who identify themselves as conservatives.
He had a hostile legislature, a hostile political establishment — and a really hostile press. The Baltimore Sun was his bête noire, and he was its. Famously, the governor barred his staff from talking to two Sun writers, so appalled was he at their performance. And he likes to cite one headline in particular. It said, “Ehrlich Okays Secret Land Deal” — “only I didn’t okay it, it wasn’t secret, and it wasn’t a deal. Other than that, the headline was perfectly accurate.”
The Washington Post was no friend of Ehrlich either, although it did endorse him for reelection. That was a stunning development. Ehrlich went in for a meeting with the editors, thinking he had “zero chance” of an endorsement. “I let loose, though respectfully,” criticizing their coverage, reading objectionable articles back to them. As if in atonement, or with a newfound appreciation, the Post said, “Reelect Ehrlich” — causing some conservatives to joke that they would reconsider their support.
Ehrlich is uncertain about his future, but another run in Maryland seems unlikely, “given the direction of the state.” He reasons this way: You have what is widely regarded as a successful administration, you have ratings for honesty in the 70s and 80s, you run an excellent campaign, with plenty of money and a smooth organization — and you still lose, by a pretty big margin. “It gives you pause as to what, if anything, can be done.” Before 2002, Maryland had not had a Republican governor since Spiro Agnew, elected in 1966. Will it be another 30 or 40 years?
As to Republican prospects nationwide, Ehrlich finds it hard to be optimistic. The GOP faces persistent problems with white women — those vaunted soccer moms — and blacks. Ehrlich spent a lot of time with black Marylanders, “and I was very well received.” But black identification with the Democratic party is “very, very strong,” and “at this time in history it seems almost impossible to overcome.” Perhaps the future will be different, but who knows?
And then there is the problem of offering a small-government philosophy to a public not necessarily receptive to it. Ehrlich maintains it’s very, very hard “to get a ’94 brewing”: That spectacular year was “as much about Democratic scandals” — the House post office and so on — “as it was about the Contract with America.”
Asked to opine on Bush and his administration, Ehrlich says, “I think they’ve had some successes and some failures — and they’ve been unable, particularly in the last couple of years, to sell their successes, while their opponents have been very, very effective at highlighting their failures.” The economy is roaring, on many fronts, and the Bush people have been “unable to take advantage of that. It’s a problem.”
So too is the war, “very unpopular on the right and the left.” Ehrlich is a Churchill aficionado, and notes that, in the 1930s, it was very hard for the Conservative leader to get a prosperous public interested in a threat from abroad. And then, when Churchill won the war, they voted him out. Ehrlich credits Bush with understanding “the nature of the Terror War.” But, in America at large, 9/11 has not proven to be the “defining event” that Ehrlich and others had thought it would be, or hoped it would be. “It’s hard to conclude otherwise when Nancy Pelosi is Speaker.”
Does he have a presidential preference for ’08? Ehrlich is not yet ready to say (and they are all courting him, despite the election result). But he will say this, unequivocally: “Because the Democrat has to lose, we have to win.” And by “the Democrat,” he means Hillary Clinton. “It’s critically important for the country, for our national security, that the Republican nominee win in 2008. Another four years, or eight years, of a President Clinton would be intolerable,” in this era of war. “We can’t afford it. When the country was at relative peace, and the NASDAQ cocktail party was going on, a Clinton could be president. Not today.”
Ehrlich has been a sight to behold, governing ultra-liberal Maryland as a “libertarian-influenced conservative” (his self-description). Just about all the forces have been arrayed against him. I tell him that he has reminded me of a conservative professor on campus, without tenure: His fellow faculty gun for him, the university administration guns for him, the student press and activists gun for him — and they finally get him. Ehrlich laughs heartily at this analogy.
I later remember something he said to me last spring, when I talked with him in Annapolis. Discussing his admiration of Churchill, he said, “He stood on principle, and he was willing to lose.” The same applies to Bob Ehrlich. Conservatives have suffered a bitter loss, but it was fun to have him in for four years, and a bit of a miracle.