To Kaufman, the debate counts more than victory

November 08, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A. Robert Kaufman holds aloft the little light in democracy's backroom. He runs for every political office, and never wins, but democracy always benefits when people pause to pay some attention. He is that tiny, insistent voice reminding us that the debate is the important thing, not just the winning or losing. Kaufman is a pain in the bleep. He is the sound of America working things out in public. Today, he's supposed to begin getting back to business.

Nearly five months since he was beaten over the head with a crowbar and stabbed in the throat, Kaufman's due home from the hospital. He is still a candidate for the U.S. Senate. This will cause sleeplessness for a collective 14 seconds by Ben Cardin, Kweisi Mfume and Michael Steele, who are considered best bets to succeed the retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes. But maybe they should pay a little more attention than usual.

This time, Kaufman is far ahead of the curve of public sentiment. From the start, he's called his campaign a crusade against America's "criminal war" in Iraq. Not so long ago, such sentiments tended to brand Kaufman as unpatriotic, and maybe even subversive. Now they mark him as part of a growing majority feeling furious and vulnerable about the increasing body count, the new generation of terrorists born out of the American presence in Iraq and by all the White House lying and leaking and dissembling that orchestrated the war's buildup and continues today.

As The Sun reported yesterday, new numbers by the independent, nonpartisan Potomac polling organization show Marylanders' support for the war falling like something thrown from a cliff. Only 25 percent want the U.S. to maintain or increase our presence in Iraq, while 51 percent want a gradual pullout, and another 18 percent want us to pull out immediately.

Any politician not paying attention to such numbers does so at great peril. Three years ago, when George W. Bush was still hatching his plans for war, he had 83 percent approval ratings in Maryland. Now, says Potomac, he has 33 percent approval.

Bush should have paid a little attention to those voices such as Kaufman's. Nobody ever does, because we insist on dividing ourselves into winners and losers. Kaufman, perceived as a loser, gets a smattering of attention. Some of it comes with a sneer, some with comic overlay. Candidate Kaufman, ho, ho, ho. While the winners, such as Bush, get endless air time to launch lies that lead us into war.

Always, in his decades of quixotic political campaigning, Kaufman has taken the minority viewpoint. Half a century ago, he was far out front on racial equality. He's been out front on universal health care. Out front on economic sanity in a nation where the cruel divide between rich and poor has grown to grotesque proportions and the middle class struggles for existence.

Even last summer, when it seemed self-destructive, he stuck by his principles. He was attacked by a guy wielding a crowbar and a knife. The guy wanted money, and Kaufman moved to help him out. But the guy, half out of his mind, attacked anyway.

So what does Kaufman do? Emerging from three days at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, he tells reporters not to blame the attacker, that he was just some "sick individual" who was a product of "the society that gave birth to him."

Meaning: a guy caught in the cycle of poverty and drugs who whacks out.

So Kaufman, now hitting the three-quarter-century mark, remains maddening. He sticks to principle and never mind what voters think. He wants us to listen to things we usually don't want to hear. But, on this war, he suddenly finds himself in a large crowd. And it raises the question: Where does it leave his opponents, Cardin and Mfume and Steele, the "real" contenders for the U.S. Senate?

The new Potomac poll shows Cardin and Mfume in a Democratic primary dead heat (with 37 percent still undecided). It shows Mfume and Steele in a dead heat in a general election (with 23 percent undecided) and Cardin with an 11-point lead over Steele in a general run (with 25 percent undecided).

Maybe the war makes people decide.

For Steele, criticizing the war would mean splitting from his party's beliefs. For Cardin and Mfume, it represents a different kind of challenge. It's not only that the Democrats lost their voice in the run-up to war - it's that they've never found it during the Bush years. In the face of the White House flood of disinformation and calls to faux patriotism, the Democrats ducked into the shadows.

Say what you will about Kaufman. Say he's annoying, say you don't like his politics. But he's never ducked an issue over fear of offending voters. That's why he's lost every election. But never lost his principles.

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