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Oopsie

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/15/2006

Political campaigns are one of the most engrossing forms of free entertainment offered in American culture. That’s reason enough to feel cheated that the U.S. Senate race in Maryland this fall won’t pit Michael Steele against Martin O’Malley. Both are fairly young, ambitious, and affable men who are rising stars in their respective parties. They also share a penchant for sometimes speaking before thinking.

Steele’s gaffe on Feb. 9 at an appearance before the Baltimore Jewish Council’s board was a corker, clumsily comparing embryonic stem-cell research to the heinous scientific experimentation of the Third Reich. When is the political consultant going to emerge who hypnotizes his clients to forget, at least in front of audiences, the words “Hitler,” “Nazis,” “McCarthyism,” and “Holocaust”? Such invocations cheapen the horrific significance of events in the 20th century and are used so often that the meaning is lost. It’s one thing for an Islamofascist to draw a cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Hitler—that’s common in the Arab media—and quite another for a Western politician to equate George W. Bush or Tony Blair to Hitler, or, from the other side, John Kerry or Howard Dean to Fidel Castro.

Steele’s comment was on the level of O’Malley’s statement early on Feb. 8, 2005, that President Bush’s budget cuts were similar to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, or, even worse, his remark at a fundraiser for John Kerry in June 2004 that, while he was still worried about al-Qaida, “I’m even more worried about the actions and inactions of the Bush administration.”

Steele is fortunate that this flap comes nearly nine months before the election, when it’s still relatively uncertain what Democrat he’ll challenge. Imagine if he’d said, to a Jewish audience, in October rather than February, “You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool.” The headlines alone could have doomed his campaign; at this date he has plenty of time to recover and reflect on his stump speeches.

Does anyone believe that Steele, a cultural conservative who opposes both abortion and the death penalty, isn’t well versed in the history of World War II? Of course not. He forgot he was speaking to a mostly very liberal group of Jewish Baltimoreans, to whom the Holocaust is sacrosanct and, in any case, aren’t likely to vote for him anyway. Still, it certainly wasn’t an effective way to attract moderate Democrats and independents in the very blue state of Maryland.

Steele has compounded this current problem by apologizing several times for his “inarticulate” analogy last week. He’s also given the impression, in the heat of contrition, of having a more elastic view on embryonic stem-cell research than was previously thought. On Feb. 12, Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka took full advantage of Steele’s mishap to raise questions of whether he’s ready to wage what promises to be a nasty Senate campaign. She quoted Stephen Hess, of the liberal (and not identified as such) Brookings Institution, as saying, “If I were a voter, I’d worry about having him in the Senate where these folks are in the business of talking.” I’d say the bar is pretty low for high oratory in the Senate today, if the grandstanding of Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer during the Samuel Alito hearings is considered.

Steele’s gaffe also gave his opponents a welcome opportunity to self-righteously fulminate and depict him as a practitioner of political opportunism. Ben Cardin, who is Steele’s most likely opponent, was quick to bash the lieutenant governor, calling a press conference in Annapolis on Feb. 10. He said, “Michael Steele opposes this lifesaving research. This is an appropriate issue for us to debate . . . Michael Steele is wrong on stem-cell research, and he’s wrong on other issues.” Cardin could’ve issued a blanket statement to the media, as Kweisi Mfume did, but instead he took advantage of the situation with his press conference to keep the story alive.

It’s always laughable when an elected official thunders about a competitor, or the opposing party, for exploiting an issue for purely political reasons. Of course that’s what they do; it’s part of the job description.

The Washington Post ran an editorial Jan. 29 urging Maryland’s General Assembly to defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would put the contentious issue of gay marriage on the ballot this fall. (The effort, pushed by the minority Republicans, failed.) This again, was politics: The GOP wanted the initiative before voters because it would likely increase turnout in November. The Democrats, recognizing that the amendment would most likely pass, were fearful for their top candidates.

Yet the Post, a lock to endorse O’Malley or Doug Duncan for governor and Cardin or Mfume for Senate, exposed its partisanship in the editorial. “As a general principle, we believe these matters are best dealt with by elected legislators, not judges”—Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock struck down the 33-year-old ban against same-sex marriage; the ruling was immediately appealed—“ . . . but the issue is corrupted when the basic questions of fairness and equity . . . are subsumed by election-year politicking.”

Let’s see if I’ve got the Post’s position right. Had Murdock issued her ruling in a year when both the governorship and seat of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes weren’t at stake, it would be OK to let elected officials and Maryland residents duke it out in Annapolis and the polls? As the Jam once sang, in a different context, that’s entertainment.

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