Liberal dose of bravery needed in the Senate

April 25, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE springtime of his 62nd year, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin will assume a posture that has never in his lifetime fit him: He is going to take a political chance. Tomorrow he is slated to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. This is lovely news for everyone who has admired him through the years for his intelligence and his integrity.

But it perplexes all those wondering: Does this new spirit of adventure include a willingness to speak out, and speak with new forcefulness, in a time when Democrats across the country find themselves pushed around daily like the squirts on a schoolyard playground?

This is a pitiful thing to watch. The Democrats run for office, and then they run for cover. Those who once spoke with righteous conviction now take a vow of silence on all the major issues. They cannot utter a sentence without equivocating and qualifying and hedging, lest somebody interpret it the wrong way. They are afraid of the very things they profess to believe in most deeply.

The Democrats lost the White House to a man who took the country into war on a foundation of pure fantasy. They are still scratching their heads about it. They find themselves outnumbered and bullied and cut out of the action in the House and Senate. They turn on hate radio each day and hear talk show hosts spewing venom that masquerades as fact.

And, in the face of all this, they have lost their voices.

Cardin wishes to replace the retiring Paul Sarbanes. Some say he is a natural successor, since he has spent his years in the House mirroring Sarbanes in intelligence and style. Each is respectful of process. Each is a serious student of issues. Neither makes the instinctive beeline for all available microphones, nor has the ego to alert TV cameras just because they're giving a talk to a classroom of college students.

But, in the highly contentious modern context, are Cardin's skills enough? For all his smarts, he has always been a cautious type. Twice, at least, he wanted to run for governor. He had supporters with deep pockets urging him on, and polls showing solid support. He took a pass, staying with safe seats.

Now, frustrated by Democratic powerlessness in the House, and seeing his last chance to roll the political dice, he readies to announce his Senate run. But it gives Democrats pause. Already in the race is Kweisi Mfume, the former national head of the NAACP.

Here are two men, close friends as well as historic political allies, who generally stand for the same principles. But, while Cardin's career has been marked by caution, Mfume is perceived as the outspoken rebel. Partly, this is based on fact. But, partly, it's based on our modern instinct to judge someone early in the game and hold onto initial perceptions. We might not be right, but we save ourselves time.

In his days in the Baltimore City Council, Mfume used to enrage a mayor named William Donald Schaefer. He was the house contrarian. You'd hate to recount the number of council votes that ended 18 to 1. Mfume was the holdout. Often, just on principle.

When he went to Congress, he was such a strident voice for minorities and for poor people that he became a national figure. Even Schaefer (who has deep respect for Cardin) came to admire Mfume. And, after nine years in the House, he spent the next nine years as the NAACP's national president, until resigning last fall.

But there are those who say he lost some of his edge at the NAACP. They tell you this with mixed feelings. They understand that people mature, and they mellow. They figure out texture, and learn what sells. But, if Mfume has moderated, it comes with a history.

As NAACP president, his first mission was to bring the organization back to financial stability as well as political credibility. He had to reach out to those whose natural instincts aren't the embrace of bomb throwers. Mfume had to learn compromise.

Now, as he and Cardin begin to face each other, we will see if his viewpoint has changed, or only his vocal cords. At his most passionate, Mfume's voice is exactly what the Democrats have lacked. At his best, he talks about the need for economic fairness and doesn't worry about upsetting a bunch of multimillionaires who just got huge tax breaks.

On most issues, Mfume and Cardin are kindred spirits as well as friends. They come out of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, too. They knew the word liberal when everyone knew it stood for tolerance, and an embrace of people from all backgrounds and economic classes, before the radio talkers turned it into a curse word.

A Democratic primary between Cardin and Mfume could bring us this rare and thrilling thing in America: a race in which the candidates attack the country's problems instead of each other, and aren't frightened at the sound of their own principles expressed openly.

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