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In Md., Senate Hopefuls Ably Walk the Middle Path

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, August 11, 2006

While just about every other Washington pundit this week was writing the obituary for centrism and bipartisanship, I was driving around Maryland looking for a Democratic Senate candidate to revive them.

Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, the defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary was not a repudiation of the idea of working with the party in power to find common ground and get some things done. Nor was it an endorsement of the anti-market, soak-the-rich agenda of the Democratic left. The vote was nothing more -- and nothing less -- than an urgent message from Democrats horrified and angry at what the U.S. invasion of Iraq has wrought. They want to bring back the troops, not the blood-feud politics, from the Middle East.

I'm happy to report that none of the three leading candidates in the Maryland primary contest is itching for Sunni-like holy war against the Republican Shiites, at least not as it concerns business and economic issues.

In his rhetoric and position papers, Kweisi Mfume is the most dogmatically liberal of the major candidates. He prefers a government-run national health system, modeled after France, and would throw sand in the gears of globalization by erecting barriers to job outsourcing and by voting against any more NAFTA-like trade treaties. His riff on a new federal "living wage" to lift the working poor out of poverty is long on the vision thing but dangerously vague on specifics.

It would be wrong, however, to see Mfume as a stick-figure liberal. As a member of the House, he played a positive role in backing Bill Clinton's welfare reform plan, daring to speak the truth about the cycle of failure and dependency from which he was able to escape. And after Bill Cosby, at an NAACP event, challenged the black underclass to put aside the blame game and take more responsibility for social and economic dysfunction, it was Mfume, then the organization's president, who embraced Cosby as he left the stage and later defended his remarks. Mfume also backs the docs against the trial lawyers in the never-ending battle over malpractice insurance, daring to defy some of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party.

As Mfume heads into the final stretch without much money or much of a grass-roots organization, however, he is likely to find himself unduly reliant on the Maryland State Teachers Association, which endorsed his candidacy. And while he correctly identifies education as the key in addressing issues such as poverty and widening income inequality, there's not much he's going to be able to accomplish in that regard as long as he is politically tethered to teacher tenure, outdated certification rules and pay based on seniority rather than performance.

Josh Rales would hardly be the first millionaire who bought himself a Senate seat, but he surely would be the most informed and thoughtful on a wide range of issues, from education and health care to energy policy and the budget implications of entitlement reform. Perhaps more important, Rales would bring to the Senate an outsider's sense of urgency about the economic challenges facing the country and an impatience with the ideological tong wars and the partisan posturing that blind lawmakers to reasonable solutions.

That said, the most effective legislators are those who can blend mastery of their issues with a sixth sense for political realities and nuances. In that respect, Rales comes across as painfully naive. While nobody doubts the need for fresh blood and fresh thinking on Capitol Hill, it might have helped if Rales had gained some experience in the minor leagues of politics before making his bid for a spot in the majors.

The danger, of course, in spending too much time moving up the political ladder is that you become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That certainly could have happened to Ben Cardin, who hails from one of Baltimore's leading political families and has held office continually since his election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966. During his 20 years in the Assembly, he served as both chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and speaker, and has been a respected inside player as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee for most of his 20 years in Congress.

The long list of endorsements, and the flush campaign treasury, leave little doubt that Cardin is the preferred candidate of the Democratic establishment. But don't expect him to toe the leadership or interest-group line. As a pragmatist with a knack for bipartisan dealmaking, he stands toe to toe with a Lieberman or a McCain -- only in Cardin's case, with the good sense to oppose the war in Iraq. During the Clinton administration's ill-fated campaign to reform the health-care system, he helped to make the plan more palatable to business by cutting back on new payroll taxes and limiting punitive damage awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. Now he thinks he spies the future of health-care reform in the bipartisan Massachusetts plan, with its mandate that everyone purchase a basic health insurance policy, with government subsidies for those who can't afford it.

In recent years, Cardin and Republican Rob Portman formed a bipartisan tag team that pushed through modernization for the IRS, expanded incentives for individual retirement plans and strengthened the private pension system -- often over the opposition of party leaders. He's a budget-balancing fiscal conservative with a good sense of how to make the tax code more progressive without overdoing it. And given the right political climate, he'd be one Democrat to help strike the deal to put Social Security back into actuarial balance.

Cardin had the good sense and independence from organized labor to support the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now, with China, India and the former Soviet bloc joining the global marketplace, he has the good sense to demand that any new treaties come with some extra protection for workers who experience the downside of globalization.

I'll leave it to others to decide whether Cardin is the best candidate to defeat Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in November. But if Democrats want any hope of governing after the election, they could sure use more senators like Ben Cardin.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.

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