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Political Animal

Don’t Look Now

By Brian Morton | Posted 4/26/2006

There’s an elephant in the room.

He sits there, quietly yet insistently. He eats little, but his presence is noted by nearly everyone. Except, of course, by the people who have to walk around him, to note that there’s a seat taken by a giant behemoth whose sheer size cannot be ignored. He looks different to everyone involved, but he’s not going anywhere.

To Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, the elephant looks like the inevitability of numbers. Large turnout + low recognition factor + little traction + less money = second place in September’s Democratic primary election. To get around the elephant, Duncan must make noise, and lots of it. Baltimore schools are crap, he’ll say. Baltimore is the land of crime and drugs, and Mayor Martin O’Malley lets the city fall to pieces around him, he’ll say. He’ll show up for the opening of an envelope in Baltimore County if it nabs him some press. Duncan needs to do anything he can to build a voter base north of Laurel; otherwise, the steamroller of inevitability will run him down before the summer is out. 

To O’Malley, the elephant is the system. The mayor has to spend a little more than four months pretending that he’s the only Democrat running for governor. Four long months hoping that his police department doesn’t implode, hoping that some new schools problem doesn’t rear its head. (Even though the schools aren’t run out of the mayor’s office, try telling that to voters.) Four months avoiding brickbats thrown by Duncan that will come back to haunt him during the white-hot final weeks between the primary and the general election. Keep the head down and the legs churning, and maybe no one will see that elephant in the middle of the road.

To Allan Lichtman, the elephant doesn’t have a name. Of course, statewide, neither does he—the one thing his former competitor Lise Van Susteren never had to worry about. At least Van Susteren was related to somebody famous. When Van Susteren dropped out of the Democratic Senate primary race recently, she said all the same things all the candidates do in those situations: she talked about important issues, she added diversity to the race. Whatever. But Van Susteren’s elephant looked an awful lot like Lichtman’s—nobody knows who the hell they are. Part of that comes from never having won an election in their lives before reaching for the brass ring. One just doesn’t go from being a university professor to becoming a member of one of the most exclusive 100-member clubs in America. They say “the job seeks the man,” but some people are hearing a call that’s just not audible to anyone other than dogs and themselves. And the dogs aren’t paying attention.

To A. Robert Kaufman—see above.

To Josh Rales, the elephant is anything money can’t buy. Sure, Rales has a load of money—if he started next week making big ad buys in the Washington and Baltimore TV markets telling us who he is, he might even start getting some name recognition. But political ads are a lot like ads for erectile dysfunction—there’s a lot of fine print, you still need to talk to a doctor who knows what he’s doing, and in the end, the person getting excited sure isn’t the voter. So what the heck—Rales could be the next Democratic nominee to the U.S. Senate from the state of Maryland. And this columnist could be the guy riding that invisible elephant down the middle of Rockville Pike at rush hour. 

To Kevin Zeese, the elephant, like soylent green, is people. People who don’t vote for third-party candidates in a one-and-a-half-party state like Maryland. People who can’t take third-party candidates seriously. The thing is, Zeese and his people will badger the media about coverage—but coverage comes when people pay attention to you. Now and then third-party candidates make enough noise to get noticed. Sometimes it’s in a good way, like Ross Perot in 1992. Sometimes, like George Wallace in a Laurel shopping center in 1972, not so much. But media comes when you get buzz—not the other way around. 

To Ben Cardin, the elephant is race. Cardin patiently waited his turn in the long line leading to the turnstile that is the entry point to upper-tier Maryland elected office. But the time has also come when black Marylanders—a sizable bloc in the Democratic primary—may be saying, “Wait—it’s our turn.” And to Kweisi Mfume, the elephant is green and looks just like money. Because if he beats Cardin in September, he’ll have to face in November all that out-of-state cash being raised by Michael Steele.

And to Robert Ehrlich, it’s very simple. The elephant is blue, just like the state of Maryland. And Ehrlich is not.

So the elephant sits patiently watching the crowd circle around him. And none of them will acknowledge out loud that he is even there.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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