Mr. Steele's Politics as Usual

Saturday, November 4, 2006

AS HE CLOSES out his campaign for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, a central theme for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has been to paint himself as an agent of change and his Democratic opponent, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, as the candidate of the proverbial Washington establishment. In fact, Mr. Steele, a Republican, is the real go-along-to-get-along candidate in the race.

Despite his efforts to construct an image as an independent-minded newcomer, there is nothing in Mr. Steele's past -- no achievement, no record, no evidence and certainly no command of the issues -- to support it. Pressed on energy or the environment, health care or North Korea, he tells reporters that he would get "all the players in the room." That sounds fine but means nothing; he's running to be a senator, not a meetings coordinator. He proposes a list of big-ticket spending programs but offers no convincing idea about how they might be paid for. He knocks special-interest politics but is flush with campaign cash thanks to a team of GOP lobbyists.

Unsurprisingly in a heavily Democratic state, he doesn't always follow the standard Republican playbook. But as more light has been shed on Mr. Steele's slight experience in government, it has become clearer just how ineffectual he has been.

As lieutenant governor, Mr. Steele had at best a marginal impact, even on his handpicked projects. He spent three years studying the death penalty but produced only a memo that has not been made public. In his campaign literature, Mr. Steele took credit for working with legislators to achieve "historic improvements" in the state's teacher pension system. But the lead lawmaker on the pension bill, state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard), bluntly told The Post's Ann E. Marimow: "I never heard from him."

A victory for Mr. Steele, an African American, would add diversity to the Senate. That is a worthy goal, and it is one reason given by a number of high-profile black Democrats for breaking party ranks to endorse him. But it is worth noting that even those backers have not made the argument that Mr. Steele would be an especially effective lawmaker or a leader on any particular issue in the Senate. Maryland deserves all that, and only Mr. Cardin, with his deep experience, can deliver it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company