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Steele's Timid Campaign

Here's today's column:

Michael Steele looks like the most innovative and refreshing candidate in this fall's campaign. All puppies aside, his TV ads have been the talk of the town, not only for their striking style and the lieutenant governor's good humor, but because Steele is bold enough to take some shots at his party's orthodoxy.

Steele clearly relishes breaking the mold. Even if his early steps away from the Republican line on the war in Iraq were tentative and clumsily anonymous, Steele has managed to portray himself as someone who understands the average Marylander's frustration with both parties and with all the tired tropes of American politics.

So when Steele is asked whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign, his response is neither to parrot the party line nor to obfuscate with standard-issue blather about how Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the president. No, Steele declares the question to be "irrelevant. It's more political Washington stuff. Demagoguing. If I call for his resignation, what does that do? 'Oooh, Michael Steele says I should resign?' "

But while Steele's casual, backyard rhetoric is alluringly accessible, his reply is also a voter-friendly way of saying he's not going to answer the question. Similarly, when Steele is asked whether the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion was properly decided, he says, "I'm a Senate candidate. My opinion on that is moot." Another deflection, despite the effort to appear disdainful of the usual political rhetoric.

Like many voters who look at Democratic candidate Ben Cardin and his large contributions from big oil, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, I roll my eyes over his easy acceptance of politics-as-usual. But although Steele's TV ads present him as a different kind of politician, he also has taken plenty of moola from big industry.

The problem with Steele's enticing campaign is that, as lieutenant governor, the mantle of independence that he claimed turned out to be only a decorative cloak. For years, he touted his religious objections to the death penalty as a symbol of his ability to stand up for his principles even when they put him on the wrong side of Republican policy. But Steele couldn't deliver the goods: When he finally came up with his long-promised recommendation to Gov. Bob Ehrlich on Maryland's use of capital punishment, all Steele could muster was a confidential memo suggesting more study of the issue. If that's his idea of an independent stand, then those TV ads indeed are all bluster.

Still, the promise portrayed by Steele's campaign has more than a few Prince George's County residents thinking about jumping over to cast one Republican vote. I've spoken to dozens of black voters who are attracted by the prospect of a black senator, by Steele's pledge to break with his party and by his background as a native Washingtonian.

In Maryland politics, where Baltimore still reigns supreme, the possibility of having a senator who knows and cares about D.C. suburbs is almost enough for many voters to overcome their dismay with the Bush administration and Republicans.

Cardin, who has represented Baltimore his entire adult life, seems to have little interest in Washington area issues. When I asked him what the next move should be now that Virginia's legislature has failed to join Maryland, the District and the federal government in providing a dedicated source of funding for Metro, Cardin replied that he was "not familiar with that issue." The man who wants to represent all of Maryland was clueless about a $1.5 billion federal funding source that is the No. 1 priority for the transit system serving the state's largest bloc of voters.

But while Steele would give D.C. suburbs a voice in the Senate for the first time since Montgomery and Prince George's counties ballooned into major population centers, his campaign has become its own worst enemy. Surrounding himself with a staff that sports a deep antagonism toward Democrats and the federal government -- that is, toward significant chunks of the voter base he needs to win over -- Steele has run a stealth campaign, keeping the candidate's whereabouts a closely held secret and venturing out primarily on friendly, conservative talk radio.

And now, when you'd think Steele would be trying to prove his independence with a strong emphasis on policy and ideas, what does he do to drum up publicity? Import Don King, the clownish boxing showman who served time for manslaughter. "I must have an indictments list longer than his awards list," King joked while touring the state with Steele. Har, har.

Michael Steele had a choice in this campaign: Add substance to the aura of independence generated by his TV ads, or hide behind that aura, spending his energy instead on pumping up the imagery. Sadly, he stuck with the sizzle, leaving voters still hungry for meat.

By Marc Fisher |  October 22, 2006; 7:07 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

As a registered Democrat living in Balimore City, I will be casting my vote for Michael Steele. The Democratic Party has taken black voters for granted for over 40 years. I don't like Cardin. He's been trying to pimp the black communities in P.G. County and Baltimore City. I will not be voting for Martin O'Malley for Governor. He's another pimp, pimping the black vote.

Posted by: Baltimore City Black Democrat | October 22, 2006 11:55 PM

Steele's campaign is refreshing and energizing -- way better than Cardin's predictable and banal attacks on George Bush. Where's the "meat" in Cardin's campaign. It looks to me like he's running against George Bush, not Michael Steele.

As usual at the Post, you set the bar so high for the Republican and then all you ask the Democrat to do is limbo beneath it.

Posted by: KK | October 23, 2006 6:53 AM

If Michael Steele was running as an Independent candidate I might buy into his campaign. But he is running as a Republican, in a campaign paid for in large part by the Republican National Committee. Steele either has no loyalty to his party supporters, is a hypocrite, or is trying to fool voters into thinking he is something that he can't be; independent of his party. If he is elected, its the Republican leadership in the Senate that will give him is marching order, and as a freshman Senator, it would be highly unlikely that he would slap the hand that funded his campaign and provides him with a path to the positions he would want in the Senator. For these reasons I find his campaign insulting and dishonest.

Posted by: Rich | October 23, 2006 8:35 AM

KK: what do you find refreshing and energizing about Steele's campaign?

His ads that say nothing?

His answers to reporters questions that say nothing?

His campaign schedule that says nothing until events are over?

Yes, there's alot to find refreshing and energizing about a stealth campaign.

Posted by: Loudoun Voter | October 23, 2006 11:19 AM

Steele and his advisers think that MAryland's African American citizens can be duped into supporting him just because he is black. Anyone who stops to think for a minute will realize that Steele will only help perpetuate a Bush agenda, one that has done almost nothing to help the very people Steele is appealing to. That is far worse than "being taken for granted". That is being exploited for pure political gain.

Posted by: jmsbh | October 23, 2006 11:32 AM

I also will be voting for Mr. Steele. The Cardin campaign (if you can call it that) seems to have him running against George Bush. Almost every ad on television is a slam on George Bush.

Last time I checked George Bush was not on the ballot. Since Cardin can't even determine who is opponent is, I will be voting for the candidate who obviously is more in touch with reality.

Posted by: Fed Up Democrat | October 23, 2006 1:04 PM

I would remind all of those black voters who are considering Steele to consider our position on Clarence Thomas. We thought he would stand with us but has proven to be the most conservative Supreme Court Justice. Just having a black face won't many anything for the black community. Does anyone think that this carefully strategized split with the Republican Party is anything but carefully strategized?

Posted by: tlpatt7070 | October 23, 2006 1:29 PM

"Fed Up Democrat": Seriously, fella, can't you even come up with an honest screen name?

You're a Maryland Democrat about as much as Michael Steele is an independent.

Posted by: Loudoun Voter | October 23, 2006 1:51 PM

For Steele not to play race, his signs are all over Black PG. Steele is a 2-faced charlatan. he is counting on the black vote to win this race. Cardin is not the best at selling the democratic message, but voting is for agenda is the point. steele is planning a outright robbery to get into office. nothing about his campaign is true.

Posted by: OKNOW | October 23, 2006 2:13 PM

Loudon Voter,

His campaign is refreshing and energizing because he's running against Cardin who seems to be running against George Bush. Even Fish begins this Post by referring to Steele as "the most innovative and refreshing candidate in this fall's campaign." All your criticisms of Steele's campaign apply with greater force to Cardin's.

Posted by: KK | October 23, 2006 2:35 PM

Bush may not be on the ballot, but as long as the Democrats maintain a chance of retaking the Senate, he's a major stumbling block in an area that keeps track of national as well as local issues, and Steele knows it. Too bad he initially refused to own the comments he made about the challenges of being a Republican candidate in the current political climate. That doesn't do a lot to make me confident that he'll be an independent voice when it counts.

Nor, frankly, do I believe that he'll care about the DC suburbs when he keeps using "Washington" as a pejorative in his responses to questions about issues or that Cardin's campaign raises. Can't he limit his insults to Capitol Hill?

Posted by: fs | October 23, 2006 3:15 PM

Good God, people are falling for this? A big democratic victory is our only hope of forcing the administration to be accountable to American values and Steele, Santorum, and Chafee are as complicit in the coverup as the worst of the Republican senators. If they caucus with republicans than they are as much to blame for the torture and graft of the Bush administration as Rove, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Posted by: Chris | October 23, 2006 3:28 PM

I think when it comes down to it, people are going to vote for who they think will do the best for their state, not who took a picture with Bush, etc. Except for the more rabidly partisan, that's irrelevant. Cardin is pushing the "Bush Scary" approach and honestloy, thats starting to get a bit tiring.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2006 3:28 PM

My assessment is that Steele = Fluff and Image.

After his loss in this election, I'm hoping he'll take his superior image making skills and work on combining them with some real substance for the future. Hard work and commitment to some important issues never hurt anyone. (Smoozing and image making may be hard but its not really work.)

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2006 3:47 PM

I don't actually consider myself rabidly partisan. I'm a middle-class white church goer who is fairly close to the middle on some social and economic issues. I also consider Bush to be responsible for policy that is inimical (sic) to what it means to be an American. Last I checked the Bill of Rights, Habeus Corpus and a prohibitiopn of cruel and unusual punishment were all in the Constitution.

Likewise there is no scrutiny of the administrations shady dealings, like the mass firings of attorneys at the IRS responsible for investigating the rich for tax fraud, inside deals on public lands, and the as yet unreleased details of the Enron/Bush energy policy.

I think electing a democrat would be nice because we could use a little daylight in Washington even more than we need some of Steele's fresh air.

Posted by: Chris | October 23, 2006 3:47 PM

How is Steele "refreshing and energizing"? He has accomplished nothing outstanding as Lt. Governor and his ads doesn't indicate how he will "change Washington". His ads lacks bark let alone bite.

Posted by: MD Voter | October 23, 2006 7:57 PM

MD Voter,

And where Cardin's "bark and bite"? He thinks bark is the outer layer of a pine tree and his idea of a bite is a light, informal meal with a lobbyist.

How is he going to change Washington? He made it what it is, and is proud of what he made.

Posted by: KK | October 24, 2006 4:59 AM

KK: If you think any one senator can "change" Washington, no wonder you're impressed with Steele's content-free ads.

Posted by: Loudoun Voter | October 24, 2006 10:49 AM

Steele as an agent of change?

Against stem cell research? He's closer to 19th century than 21st.

Everybody knows if he's elected he'll either be run out the party for going his own way or he'll start goose-stepping with the other Republicans.

Sorry, the last thing Maryland, the US, or the Earth needs is another right-wing agent of stay-the-course-change.

It's what conservative means - they don't believe in changing anything ever (unless it is to go back in time).

We'd still be fling feces at each other from the trees if we waited for the conservatives.

Posted by: Melted Steele | October 24, 2006 11:38 AM

I was wondering how does Michael Steele and the rest of the black republicans feel about the RNC's campaign ad showing Harold Ford, the congressman that is running for the senate in Tennessee. The ad insinuates that Ford is having an affair with a white blond. Is this the RNC playing the race card again?

Posted by: Ron Moore | October 29, 2006 9:58 AM

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