Friday, December 16, 2011

Ehrlich's Book: My Take

While reading Bob Ehrlich’s book, Turn This Car Around: The Roadmap to Restoring America, I immediately noticed two things.

First, he definitely wrote it himself.

Having written (and ghostwritten) for him in the past, I am very familiar with his style. The book’s prose displays the lawyerly, wonkish, and dry qualities I remember. And, the serial use of the word “accordingly” is a dead giveaway.

Second, despite Ehrlich’s claims to the contrary, this book is very much a memoir of Ehrlich’s time in politics.

Turn This Car Around is an amalgam of Ehrlich’s observations about events and policy debates which populated his 24-year political career. He discusses them and then tries to extrapolate from each lesson implications reverberating beyond Maryland.   

Some of his observations – such as the business community’s willingness to accommodate rather than confront progressives – lend themselves comfortably to extrapolation. Others – such as his recounting past feuds with the Baltimore Sun – do not.

Overall, it reads like a series of disparate chapters strung together like popcorn, with particular emphasis given to incidents in which he felt he was either treated unfairly or did not receive proper credit at the time.

And though some of Ehrlich’s observations are valid, the book never articulates a programmatic vision. There is no roadmap here.

If there is any unifying theme in the book, it’s frustration – specifically, the frustration of a politician who confronted an entrenched, hostile establishment in a one-party state and was ultimately squashed by it.

This frustration causes him to spend much of the book re-litigating incidents from years ago – Britney Spears, the “multiculturalism is bunk” remark, the failed takeover of the Baltimore schools, medical marijuana, Democratic attempts to paint Michael Steele as an Uncle Tom – which have long since been forgotten by most readers.

At other points, Ehrlich will invoke some obscure policy initiative from his administration – I worked for him and had to remind myself of what exactly “Project RESTART” was – and begin to re-argue its merits.

Additionally, the book is full of pictures – portrait shots of himself and his photogenic family, clippings from the same newspaper he criticizes as a “second-tier daily,” gratuitous action shots taken by State House photographers – which give it a feel reminiscent of a doting grandmother’s scrapbook.

The book does have its moments. I thought his discussion of the subprime mortgage crisis was easily the best chapter.  Ehrlich’s experience and knowledge – he is a former member of what is now the House Financial Services Committee – helped him render a good, insightful analysis.

What’s missing from the book is perhaps more interesting than what is in it.

Ehrlich was elected to the first Republican Congress in 40 years. He interacted with some compelling personalities, and witnessed historic events such as the budget showdown with the White House and impeachment from the floor of the House. Still he devotes little attention to his four terms as a congressman.

Ehrlich also avoids what was perhaps the most interesting and consequential event of his governorship: The hiring and firing controversy involving Joe Steffen and others.

Certainly one could draw some global lessons as to the nature of scandal, crisis management and communications, and legislative investigations in a hyper-partisan environment from that episode. But Ehrlich never mentions it.

In an ironic moment, Ehrlich discusses the value of requiring voter identification at the polls, explaining that, “the lack of precautionary measures at the ballot box gives rise to easily accomplished voter fraud.”

Democrats across the nation are already trying to portray voter ID requirements as a GOP tactic intended to deter Democrats from voting. They will no doubt cite Paul Schurick’s conviction in the voter suppression scandal as evidence of what “Republicans” real agenda is.

Ehrlich states that the reason he wrote the book is because he “wants a voice in national politics.”  The best way to accomplish that is to write to make a point, not just to be heard.

If Ehrlich does publish a follow-up book, perhaps he should pick one of the policy initiatives he mentioned – aggressive use of pardons and commutations, for example – and develop the concept in a way which focuses less on the Maryland experience and more on its national applicability. That way he could achieve his goal of being a public policy influencer.

But opining about obscure, state-specific events from the past seems like a futile exercise.

It’s confusing to the people who were not there, and depressing for the people who were.

1 comment:

  1. Ehrlich can't possible ever comment on the Steffen episode. Ever since his inane, "he's one in 60,000 comment" (or whatever it was) Bob knows that if he tries to spin some crap that leaves his nice guy image intact, Steffen stands ready to tell the truth.

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