Liberal, but not

July 28, 1996|By Elise Armacost

"BEN CARDIN IS A Tax and Spend Liberal'' That's Point No. 5 on 3rd District congressional candidate Pat McDonough's list of 12 reasons why he, a conservative radio talk-show commentator and one-term state lawmaker from way back, can beat the veteran congressman this fall.

Here's Point No. 6: ''Cardin has a long, highly public, liberal, Tax and Spend voting record, both in the Legislature and the Congress.''

Any guess as to what Point No. 8 might be? ''Cardin represents communities like Towson, Perry Hall, Parkville, Hamilton, Highlandtown, Canton, South Baltimore, Arbutus, Elkridge, Linthicum and Glen Burnie. Clearly these are conservative areas, not cozy to the Cardin liberal philosophy.''

Mr. McDonough isn't the first to call Mr. Cardin a liberal, and he won't be the last. The Sun, for one, has referred to him as a liberal Democrat since the beginning of time, albeit without the sneer inherent in Mr. McDonough's writings. After all, Mr. Cardin believes in abortion rights and increasing the minimum wage. He thinks President Clinton is ''real.''

That's makes him a liberal -- or, as Mr. McDonough would write, a ''Liberal,'' doesn't it? Look, I've heard Mr. Cardin described with the L-word so often that, when he showed up to meet with the editorial board recently, I half expected him to arrive clad in bell-bottoms with a hoop in his ear.

But he looked just as he always does -- as blandly conservative as a banker. As for the ''Cardin liberal philosophy,'' it sounded awfully moderate to me.

This bleeding-heart left-winger says he is about to vote for the GOP-driven welfare-reform bill that would end federal guarantees of cash assistance to our neediest children, impose a five-year lifetime limit on cash payments to poor families and kick them off welfare after two years if the head of the household isn't working.

No, he's not crazy about everything in the bill, especially the part about getting rid of a bottom-line federal responsibility to the poor. He doesn't believe the legislation includes enough money for day care, job training and other resources needed to help welfare recipients become self-sufficient.

He'll probably vote for it anyway. ''A person on welfare must understand that it's temporary assistance,'' he says. ''I'm willing to take a risk [on the bill], though some people are going to get hurt.'' He is disturbingly vague on the question of what will happen to those who get hurt -- the children and families who won't make it after two years, or five.

Illegal immigrants

On the issue of immigration, this liberal says he ''doesn't have a lot of concern denying benefits to illegal immigrants.'' He voted for a GOP-inspired immigration bill last spring, and instigated a provision in that bill denying federal contracts and subsidies to businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

He supports civil rights for gays, but recently infuriated gay and lesbian leaders by voting against legislation requiring states to recognize gay marriages. ''He has a traditional view of marriage,'' explains one of his aides. ''It's between a man and a woman.''

He advocates a reduction in the capital-gains tax, a position that puts him alongside conservatives who believe the stockholder who earns money from investments should be taxed more favorably than the construction worker who earns money through sweat.

One might conclude that Mr. Cardin has tempered his liberal ways the better to survive the electorate's shift to the right. Political realities have, in fact, forced him further to the right on some issues, such as welfare reform, than he would prefer. By and large, however, he's espoused many of his views for a long time. He wrote a newsletter early in 1994, before anyone could guess the GOP would take over Congress, insisting on a welfare system that focuses on self-sufficiency instead of handouts. He has favored a capital-gains tax cut for years.

The truth is, ''pragmatist'' has always been the best label for Mr. Cardin. He likes being a player. You can't be a player if you never get anything done, and can't get things done if you never bend enough to meet some of the people across the aisle. In Annapolis his best pal was Republican Robert R. Neall, a fiscal conservative and social moderate. His new confrere is Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, whom he depends upon to co-sponsor bills that wouldn't make it through Congress bearing his name alone.

Is Ben Cardin more liberal than Pat McDonough? Obviously. But he's not the ''Liberal'' Mr. McDonough would like the 3rd District to believe. That could be too bad for the Republican, who faces an uphill battle even if he convinces voters Mr. Cardin is too leftish for them. It will disappoint pure leftists, who want more out of Mr. Cardin than what he's giving.

But it's reassuring to those of us who are liberal on some issues, conservative on others, who would rather our representatives be pragmatists who occasionally jump out of their designated compartments than ideologues more interested in philosophical purity than progress.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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