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Political Animal

Gender Gap

By Brian Morton | Posted 7/19/2006

Most late-season political tactics are older than the coelacanth, and smell just about the same. But unlike the Jurassic fish, the gubernatorial re-election campaign of Robert Ehrlich has taken on a new and different tack, and not even before ol' Bobby Smooth's bandwagon had started up the engine.

We've been letting this story stew around in our heads here at Animal Control for well over two weeks now, and we're still trying to figure out why Ehrlich would send his wife out to a major political event, the Maryland Municipal League conference in Ocean City, and have her rip his general election opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, in the harshest terms. "They're scared their candidate is a failure," she said, echoing a theme her husband started when he was asked for comment following the Democratic primary withdrawal of Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. 

But we expect Bobby Smooth to be calling O'Malley a failure. Wrapping the problems of big-city mayors around their necks is par for the course in the modern era. Urban centers are primarily at the mercy of the actions of the federal government, and when the climate created by Republicans for the cities is poor they tend to have to fend for themselves. As the New York Daily News said in the '70s, Gerald Ford told the Big Apple to "DROP DEAD," Ronald Reagan turned the mentally ill out into the streets, and George H.W. Bush thought it could all be solved by volunteerism, his so-called "thousand points of light." So when Kendel Ehrlich stepped out to sing the "O'Malley Failure Blues" like Billie Holiday before a room full of paying big shots, we thought less about the message than we did about the messenger.

What candidate hides behind his wife when playing hardball? Can't Bob Ehrlich slam O'Malley without sending his pink-clad attorney wife out to help? Exactly how does O'Malley play fair on that level? If he slams her back, he doesn't exactly look gentlemanly. If he hits the husband back harder, it can only mean (according to the frame that the state GOP is trying to box him into) that he's a "whiner," a term you're starting to hear a lot from the right-wing side of the aisle.

At the national level, Republicans always seem to be trying to emasculate Democrats. They couldn't do it to Bill Clinton, what with his ability to connect with women--which in the end proved his undoing, but it sure wasn't exactly their standard method. With Michael Dukakis, it was his height. With Al Gore--let's not forget the whole "earth tones" kerfuffle that was amplified by the right-wing jukebox and eventually seized upon by the major media. And portraying John Kerry as an effete, windsurfing Eastern liberal snob beholden to his rich, bitchy foreign wife was to Karl Rove the equivalent of conning a 5-year-old out of his Snickers bars at Halloween.

So if the state GOP can't take on O'Malley by painting him as a wussy boy--remember, most of Bobby Smooth's polling deficit against O'Malley comes specifically from women--then they'll try and make him seem like a child. So expect to hear the right-wingers claim O'Malley is a whiner every time he responds to an Ehrlich attack. And probably the best place to start is by having him have to respond to the governor's wife instead of the governor.

Speaking of women and Ehrlich, it was probably a brilliant move on his part to select Kristen Cox as his running mate. The selection of Michael Steele four years ago was in this vein as well. Ehrlich would never have gotten a majority of the black vote, just as it's unlikely that he'll take a majority of the female vote--but it charges head-on at his major weakness in the numbers. Ehrlich has spent the last four years sniping at the legislature and making smart remarks that often have him coming off in that smarmy frat-boy way that turns women off, no matter how he always has his wife and kids in the picture. It's the governing that matters, not the family.

It's admirable that when it comes to policy, Cox, like Steele before her, says that "her issues are the governor's issues." But shouldn't it be incumbent on the potential lieutenant governor of the state to come clean about where she stands? Maryland's No. 2 politician has only one job listed in the state constitution: to take over in case the governor's ticker stops ticking.

We, the voters, are being asked to believe that should Ehrlich no longer be able to hold the office Cox will govern and believe exactly the same way he would have. That's a tough pill to swallow. Where does she stand on guns? What if the Supreme Court kicks Roe v. Wade back to the states? What about embryonic stem cell research--something that Ehrlich campaigned against all the way, until he became the stem cell savior?

Robert Ehrlich probably thinks he's solved his women troubles, electorally speaking. But if you look past the picture, there's a chance they may have just begun.

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