Clear-eyed voters chose leadership over empty hype

November 15, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Charisma was a big winner in last week's election. I'm talking about the old-fashioned kind of charisma: confidence-inspiring leadership born of skill and experience.

The new kind of media-driven charisma was a loser.

Take Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. He was the brightest star of Election '06. His stage presence and his engaging television ads were the talk of the Maryland political world.

Some polls showed him closing the gap on 10-term Congressman Benjamin L. Cardin. Mr. Cardin was seen as dull, and therefore vulnerable.

But voters were not misled. Mr. Steele's folksy sizzle fizzled.

He lost by a wide margin, but his performance is worthy of note because he had very little to run on. He had no record of service in a legislative body where intimate knowledge of detail is, presumably, important. GOP strategists assumed race would trump experience.

Instead, the Steele campaign may have sketched the outer limits of what clever television can do for a candidate. It can't create a record, for example.

In a campaign scenario that never wears out, the lieutenant governor ran against Washington, casting himself as a change agent. But voters must have realized that even an experienced candidate was not going to change Washington overnight. In the meantime, they wanted someone who would know what he was doing - and who had done it effectively over a long career of public service.

In Mr. Cardin, they found the compelling charisma of accomplishment.

As a 20-year veteran of the House, the Baltimore lawmaker had helped to improve the lives of working families trying to stay even with the credit cards, the medical bills and their savings goals. Mr. Cardin helped to pass legislation that fit nicely with the Democratic theme in a big Democratic year.

His legislation:

Allowed catch-up contributions to let those over 50 put away more for retirement.

Increased contribution limits on retirement plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs.

Made retirement savings portable, to allow workers in a modern labor force to take their savings with them when they change jobs.

Created a low- and middle-income "savers credit" that encourages people to save by putting government money on the table. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that 5.3 million people used the savers credit in 2002 and 2003.

Then there was the most likely progenitor of glitz and sizzle charisma: Mayor Martin O'Malley, leader of an Irish rock band and the Democratic candidate for governor. But he chose to mute the glamour. He operated during the campaign like one of those stick figures he once drew derisively to show judges how to do their jobs.

O'Malley advisers recalled that the drawings made the judges angry - and made others wonder whether Mr. O'Malley wasn't a bit young to be governor. He was advised that maturity would be his key to winning. Charisma would have to show up in other ways.

His broad smile was unleashed, it seemed, only when he and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, stood on the risers at the Hippodrome Theatre to claim victory.

Mr. Brown's widely remarked appeal seemed a bit under wraps during the campaign, too, though campaign strategists said he made many appearances that weren't seen beyond the black community. A Harvard-trained lawyer and Army officer, he had spent a year in Iraq. Had he been deployed with a bit more energy by the campaign, he would have muted the charge that Democrats didn't have any high-ranking black candidates running statewide.

The stealth charisma worked in part because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose to conduct a "gubernatorial" campaign, avoiding the usual promises and tub-thumping personal campaign appearances in favor of official or quasi-official ceremonies.

Well over 50 percent of Marylanders told pollsters they had a favorable view of the governor's performance in office. In some years, that might have been enough.

This year, though, the definition of a charismatic candidate may have been anyone running under the Democratic Party banner.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually runs Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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