Today, The Sun begins its endorsements for the Nov. 7 general election with the race for U.S. Senate.
Against almost any election opponent imaginable, this newspaper would be strongly inclined to support Benjamin L. Cardin. Certainly against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Green-Populist-Libertarian candidate Kevin Zeese, we are convinced that Mr. Cardin is the best choice to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate and that he will serve both Maryland and the nation by helping to shape consensus on some of the most nettlesome but momentous issues of the era.
During 40 years of service in the state legislature as well as in Congress, Mr. Cardin has displayed a rare combination of keen intellect and practical horse-trading skills that marked him for leadership in every arena he entered. He has been crafting complicated policy since he was in his 20s, rising quickly in the Maryland House to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and then to take over as House speaker at age 35.
His achievements at the state level include a property tax reform that quelled runaway assessments in the mid-1970s, the elimination of charity hospitals by spreading the cost of care for the poor among all payers, and reform of school finances to help less-affluent districts keep up.
In Congress, Mr. Cardin again rose to leadership on the House Ways and Means Committee, designing health care, pension and welfare reform legislation. He has been able to work both sides of the aisle and was the only Democrat in the Republican-led Congress to get a major provision added onto President Bush's tax-cut bill of 2001: a program to help workers save for their retirements through expanded 401(k)s and IRAs. He also championed the expansion of Medicare benefits to cover preventive screenings, and has led the campaign to allow Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers for discounts.
The Baltimore Democrat's talents would be a particular asset to the Senate now. Whichever way the elections go, the body is sure to be sharply divided by party and in desperate need of members able to craft a compromise on such pressing matters as Social Security financing and universal access to affordable health care.
If Mr. Cardin has a weakness, it's that he's not the most charismatic of candidates. His gifts simply don't include a spellbinding speaking voice and magnetic stage presence. He's genial and kind and beloved by his staff, but most of his elections have been shoo-ins before he started. This Senate race is his first statewide contest, and it's been by far his most challenging.
Mr. Cardin's personality and policies are in sharp contrast to those of his most formidable opponent, Mr. Steele, who was Republican state party chairman when he was tapped to run with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. four years ago. Mr. Steele is the first African-American to be elected statewide, a fact that has some resonance in Maryland, with its 29 percent African-American population.
But his record of accomplishments as lieutenant governor has offered little reason to suppose that he could effectively advance Maryland's interests in the U.S. Senate. After calling for a review of racial and geographic inequities in the application of Maryland's death penalty, Mr. Steele concluded a three-year examination of the issue with a confidential memo calling for, of all things, further study.
A highly touted trade mission to expand Ghana Airways services at Baltimore-Washington International Airport backfired when the federal government grounded the financially troubled carrier for alleged safety violations; the airline has never returned to Maryland. And as chairman of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education, he studied the issue for a year but came up with few meaningful, systemic reforms.
Mr. Steele is a likable man and a persuasive speaker who connects with audiences on the stump. He now bills himself as an agent of change, but there's little evidence that he would work toward changing many of the disastrous Bush administration policies - the continuing war in Iraq, deficit-enlarging tax cuts or failure to support embryonic stem cell research, which Mr. Steele likened to Nazi experimentation.
On the basis of record and experience alone, Mr. Steele doesn't measure up to Mr. Cardin. Beyond that, on issues where Mr. Steele has offered an opinion, many of his views are in striking contrast with those of the majority of Marylanders: He opposes abortion rights, supports making the Bush administration tax cuts permanent and endorses at least partially privatizing Social Security.
Finally, lest there be any further doubt, this is a year in which party labels are particularly significant. There seems a realistic chance that Democrats can increase their Senate ranks, perhaps enough to regain the majority. If they do, it would have an enormous impact on American policy across the board. It would reinvigorate the moribund system of checks and balances so vital to the health of our democracy
Party affiliation alone should never be enough to recommend a candidate. But when the candidate is as highly qualified as Ben Cardin, the best choice for representative government is also the best choice for Maryland voters.