Ducking the issues

October 05, 2006

Let's call it a face-off. It wasn't a debate, that's for sure. But it was better than no side-by-side meeting of the candidates at all - which is what Maryland has to look forward to in the rest of this campaign for the U.S. Senate.

When Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin went at each other Tuesday evening - along with third-, fourth- and fifth-party candidate Kevin Zeese - in a forum sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Urban League, the very evident divide that separates them began to come sharply into focus. Maryland voters need more of this, a lot more. But Mr. Steele won't play along. No more genuine face-to-face meetings have been scheduled (other than an upcoming television encounter on Meet the Press, which has quite a different agenda). What's the lieutenant governor afraid of?

Perhaps it's his lack of a real track record. On Tuesday, Mr. Steele repeatedly characterized himself as an agent of change. But mostly what he wants to change is the subject - whenever a hard question comes up.

After nearly four years as the second-highest official in the state, he could point to few changes, beyond expanded opportunities for small businesses, that he's helped bring about. What does he really mean and what has he really done to "empower" people, as he likes to say?

Mr. Steele, a Republican, derided Mr. Cardin, a Democrat, for being a Washington insider, but he himself is being actively supported by Washington's GOP establishment. He had the ultimate insiders - Karl Rove and Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee - courting him for the job. And although Mr. Steele tried to show some distance from the Bush administration, his weakest answers were on the war in Iraq, where he could not - or didn't dare - articulate a coherent plan to stay or to leave.

Mr. Steele's most combative moment came in his opening statement, when he rudely challenged Mr. Cardin to "shut up and listen" to the people.

Should Mr. Cardin have "shut up" instead of voting against the war in Iraq? Or instead of helping his constituents sort their way through the Bush administration's needlessly complicated and expensive Medicare prescription drug program? Or instead of crafting legislation to help workers who've lost their pensions?

Was Mr. Cardin listening to Marylanders when he supported the first increase in the federal minimum wage in 10 years - only to see it blocked by Republicans?

Mr. Steele would better serve Maryland voters by giving straight answers instead of changing the subject or offering stock phrases when asked hard questions. At some point before Nov. 7, he has to stand up and really say something.

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