Friday, July 28, 2006

A Candidate for Every Occasion

Washington Post
How To Turn a Political Gaffe Into a Catastrophe
A Candidate for Every Occasion
By Marc Fisher

The Iraq war "didn't work." The Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina was "a monumental failure." Republicans in Congress have "lost our way."

Imagine the impact those comments would have made on Maryland's Senate race if Lt. Gov. Michael Steele had stood up in front of the cameras and presented himself as an independent Republican, someone who would go to Washington with his own ideas and the courage to go his own way.

Delivered straight up, Steele's remarks probably would have propelled him into the lead in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Instead, Steele made his move to distance himself from his party -- after all, he's running in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 -- in a setting that reeks of politics as usual: a no-names, just-us-elite-insiders lunch with reporters in the back room of Charlie Palmer's steakhouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.

We know that it was Steele who made those comments only because after The Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported the remarks under the agreed-upon rules of anonymity, other Republicans began a frenzy of denial Tuesday morning -- It's not me! Not me! -- that ended a few hours later with Steele's campaign copping to the truth.

Now begins the backpedaling. The president's spokesman, Tony Snow, said yesterday that Steele also had many very nice things to say about Bush.

Actually, not really. I just listened to the audio of the lunch, and but for a few minutes when he embraced Bush's veto of legislation expanding funding for stem cell research and another point when he allowed that Bush "has a genuine heart," Steele was downright eager to present himself as an independent -- a candidate who can't fathom why the president doesn't admit how badly things have gone in Iraq, who isn't "anyone's patsy," and who gets angry about how so many Americans wall themselves off "in our ivory towers and our gated communities and our little trek around the Beltway" away from poor people.

Goodness, for a stretch there, I thought I was listening to the two major Democratic candidates in the Senate race, Kweisi Mfume and Ben Cardin, both of whom use almost identical wording in their campaign speeches to hit the Republicans for neglecting the nation's poor and working-class families.

Do we have another, stealth Democrat in the race?
To hear Steele tell his story under cloak of anonymity, he's a proud product of the D.C. politics of the Barry era. "I grew up on the streets of D.C.," he said. "I learned my politics from Marion Barry and John Ray and John Wilson, guys like that, Joe Yeldell" -- the former mayor, two ex-D.C. Council members and a longtime top strategist for Barry, Democrats all.

Let's cut Steele a break. Evidently, he was trying to buddy up to Washington reporters he presumed to be diehard libs. The president's spokesman got that: "Look," Snow said, explaining that Bush takes no offense and still supports Steele, "the president understands what politics are about."

But Steele's understanding of politics seems mired in the old game of saying different things to different audiences. Yesterday in the friendly setting of WBAL, the conservative talk radio station in Baltimore, he contended that the lunch "was an off-the-record conversation." When in doubt, bash the press. So Steele lashed out at The Post's Milbank, saying that the reporter, by publishing any material from the lunch, "crossed the line" and "decided to stick his finger in my eye and in the president's eye."

Sorry, but I have in my hand an e-mail from Steele's own campaign spokesman declaring the meeting to be a "backgrounder" -- meaning that Steele could be quoted, but not by name.

Steele insisted several times yesterday that his comments were "taken out of context."

Sorry, but the tape shows conclusively that Steele went out of his way to offer criticism of Bush, sometimes unsolicited, again and again over the course of 89 minutes. (Steele also found time to handicap the Democratic primary battle: "Right now, Kweisi wins," he said, because of Mfume's strong support among blacks and liberal whites. But by Election Day, "Cardin will probably pull it out" because of superior organization and funding.)

The Michael Steele who hangs out in Capitol Hill steakhouses is apparently a near Democrat who wants Marylanders to see him as the one candidate for Senate who will stand up to party leadership and connect with the pains and dreams of ordinary people. This Steele sounds so much like his opponents that I began to wonder -- job-sharing, anyone?

But the Steele who retreats to the comfort of WBAL wraps himself in a good old Republican cloth coat. "I've been quoted as calling the president my homeboy," Steele said on the radio yesterday, "and that's how I feel."

So much for independence.