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December 7, 2007

Old, Destructive Politics

Roy Meachum

Over the past 150 years this nation's two-party system has been an unpleasant reality for politicians. Left to their own devices, they would decapitate and castrate organized opposition of any kind.

That's what the Republicans pulled off between the Civil War and the Great Depression. It can be said, during those virtually undisturbed decades in power, they invented modern partisanship. No ploy or device was too petty or too grand to keep Democrats outside the White House, looking in.

Much of the GOP winning strategy was based on race. At the time when voters were legally neither female nor colored, Republicans brandished Reconstruction's bloody flag; theirs became the party of northern Good Ol' Boys. Shut out of national politics, the former Confederacy spawned its own GOB branch, closer to home.

Under the circumstances, partisanship devolved into internecine guerrilla warfare. In Frederick party labels mattered less than personality and who you knew. Individual preference and prejudice became more important than philosophy or policy.

Indeed, until the mid-1990s brought a mass of registration changes, chiefly by county Democrats switching to Republicans, the only real way to determine anyone's party loyalty was to ascertain whom they voted for nationally.

As pointed out in Tuesday's column, Abraham Lincoln's success in snatching this state from the ill-fated Confederacy has not kept its voters in GOP columns. Nor could it. Baltimore's wealth of ethnics contributes to minority muscle.

Not being around at the time, I can accept that this far west of the jurisdictions with notable Democratic demographics, patriarchal Frederick was relatively unaffected when a combination of the Great Depression and the New Deal juggernaught put Franklin Roosevelt into the White House. There was no immediate revolution in local registrations.

Not until the new population surge from the metro area, which brought me up from Washington, was there any real change. Many of the newcomers joined the GOP. There simply was no way to tell if they were "birth" Republicans.

They may have been an example of what a priest meant. Charged with establishing a nation center for ethnics at Catholic University, Msgr. Gino Baroni was asked why the lack of Irish representation. His quick reply: They no longer fit a definition of ethnic. They have been too successful. Doctors or dentists or attorneys, they moved out of the old neighborhoods to the suburbs and became Republicans.

While only nudging the city's Democratic majority, the impact in the county was incredible. When I put down roots here, the legislative delegation counted a single Republican: Jack Derr. Every district except the pair that includes the town is now represented by a GOP delegate, and the Democrats are shut out of both Frederick seats in the state Senate.

As long as the governor's chair eluded Republican grasp, the shift in county voter registrations scarcely mattered. Voters elected politicians who excelled in bringing home political bacon.

GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich hardly made a difference at this level. His principal failure in my eyes was the grand effort to perpetuate his party's domination beyond his time in office.

Probably because Mr. Lincoln's heirs have never really recovered from losing their long-term lease on the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion, each Republican national administration seems to devote itself to keeping Democrats shut out.

Mr. Ehrlich can be understood in those same terms. As I recall the last time his party "owned" the Maryland chief executive's chair was 35 years before his election. In any case he was no more successful than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan in killing off the opposition.'s Publisher and Editor John Ashbury's Nov. 19 column, "The Politics of 'Borking'," is an excellent treatise on the destructiveness of partisanship run amok. My principal disagreement lies in the reality that what he calls "Borking" runs deeper in American history than the nasty fight over the Supreme Court nominee; it goes way back before either the Democratic or Republican Party existed.

Tom Jefferson suffered almost identical pillorying without regard to truth and circumstances. Critics feared Andrew Jackson's prowess with blade and gun; they attacked him anyway. And even Mr. Lincoln was subjected to treatment that would never be legally permitted now.

We look to those who seek political gain for the monstrous attacks on individuals who seek public service, for whatever reason; in truth, as Shakespeare noted, the flaw lies in ourselves.

If voters rose up against politicians who tar their opponents with extreme partisanship this republic and the folks who live here would be so much better.

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