Josh Kurtz: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Bob Ehrlich referred to Martin O’Malley’s “half stories.” O’Malley accused Ehrlich of living in a “fantasy world.”

And so it went during Monday’s televised debate between O’Malley, the Democratic governor, and Ehrlich, the former Republican governor who wants his old job back. You couldn’t have asked for more radically different views of the previous eight years in Maryland: O’Malley’s assessment of Ehrlich’s tenure and his own, and Ehrlich’s assessment of O’Malley’s and his own.

Anyone looking for a clear path to a prosperous future probably went away disappointed, however.

Both men came armed with enough statistics to drown his opponent and make the average viewer’s eyes glaze over. It was a reminder of why Benjamin Disraeli’s observation that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” is so trenchant.

It also brought to mind the legal profession truism that you can, if you’re good enough, get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. In much the same way, in politics, you can find a statistic to advance any argument — or find an ideologically biased interest group to crunch numbers to support your candidate’s position.

Taken as a boxing match — and it’s hard not to abuse the metaphor, with two political heavyweights going at it — O’Malley clearly won the debate on points. He was on message, talked smoothly and forcefully, and scored some strong shots against Ehrlich, especially the time he accused him of “always talking in coded language” when addressing failing schools in Baltimore city — and the city’s ills in general.

When Ehrlich was criticizing O’Malley’s reliance on federal stimulus money to fund basic state programs — oddly, he called them “surplus funds” during part of the debate — O’Malley effectively noted that Ehrlich, as governor, “never turned down a single dollar” of federal aid.

But if you were taking the beer test — as in, which candidate would you rather have a beer with? — Ehrlich came out on top. He’s almost always friendly and conversational in his public presentation. His arguments may not have been as consistently cogent as O’Malley’s, but there is a danger in seeming too polished, as O’Malley did.

Give O’Malley credit for getting his licks in — but he could’ve helped himself by lightening up a bit. He sounded almost pious when he said a governor has “no more sacred responsibility” than public safety.

Ehrlich, by contrast, can be a little too jokey, even when he is making serious points that resonate with voters. And there is often something discordant about the way he presents himself.

Remember, during his 2002 debate with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), how he was always calling her “M’am”? Probably he thought he was being courteous — but it sure stopped sounding that way after he’d done it half a dozen times.

On Monday, Ehrlich addressed O’Malley as “Guv” six or eight times. Was he being friendly, familiar, signaling that they were part of the same fraternity? Or was he being disrespectful, suggesting — as Kendal Ehrlich surely believes — that O’Malley is an illegitimate holder of the title “governor”?

Ehrlich also has a way of talking like an insider — or to insiders — that trumps his opportunities to make important political points. He breezed over “the Dollar” — his words, for the scandal over an official at the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation scrubbing unfavorable job statistics from a state website.

He referred on a few occasions to Mike Miller and Mike Busch, the presiding officers of the state legislature, without explaining who they were. These are big, important men in Annapolis, but most voters don’t know who they are.

And Ehrlich can be a terrible generalist. He railed against state regulatory policy without identifying a single one he doesn’t like or would try to change. He talked about the 2006 lawsuit to prevent the state from taking over 11 troubled schools in Baltimore — the case that drew the rebuke from O’Malley about Ehrlich talking in code — and said it was “one of the worst episodes I’ve ever seen in protecting a monopoly,” without explaining what he meant.

Of course, sometimes being pithy and talking in generalities can be quite effective. Ehrlich summed up a long and technical, statistic-laden back and forth about crime by pointing out that the police unions had endorsed him and not O’Malley.

Two other exchanges where Ehrlich was being the aggressor are worth exploring. When O’Malley boasted that he’d lowered taxes for 41 percent of Marylanders while Ehrlich refused to close tax loopholes for big corporations, Ehrlich scolded, “there’s that class warfare stuff. I’m running because of that class warfare stuff.” He went on to predict that working class voters would turn out for him big time on Election Day.

Ehrlich, if nothing else, is a political animal, a solid handicapper who is good at detecting political trends. And the disposition of working class voters may indeed be pivotal on Nov. 2.

At the same time, Ehrlich has repeated, like a mantra, that he must do better in the D.C. suburbs than he did the last two times if he is to prevail over O’Malley. And he has tried to reach out to Montgomery County, if you consider talking to small businesses and lunching with the ladies of Potomac the kind of outreach he needs to do.

On the other hand, he may have shot himself in the foot during the debate when he went on a tirade against CASA de Maryland, the thriving and vital immigrant services group in the D.C. suburbs — without explaining, once again, what it was he was talking about.

Asked for his views on illegal immigration, Ehrlich denounced “the CASA de Marylands of the world” for taking state money to print pamphlets to help illegal immigrants make their way in the community rather than teaching them about capitalism and democracy and the American way.

Talk about discordant! It teed up a nice opportunity for O’Malley to remind viewers that Ehrlich, while governor, referred to multiculturalism as “bunk.” And it proved once again that Ehrlich really doesn’t understand the D.C. suburbs at all.

Both candidates agreed on one thing: that they hold sharply divergent views on governing and policy. That was on clear display for most of the debate.

But if either candidate was trying to do anything besides preach to the converted, it seems — at first glance, at least — like he failed miserably.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Polls Apart

Van Hollen’s Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly’s Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes … Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George’s County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne’s World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation