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.
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