My vote for Senator

Rather than attempt a grand analysis of Where Things Stand with less than two weeks to go before the midterm Congressional elections here in the US, I’ll simply say that I share the conventional widsom: the Democrats stand an excellent chance of taking over the House of Representatives (where all seats are up for election) and a reasonable chance of capturing the Senate (where a third of the seats will be decided).

Furthermore I think Democratic control of one or (better still) both chambers of Congress would be a very good thing.

In the state of Maryland, where I live, there is a lively campaign for an open Senate seat between Democratic Congressman Ben Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Cardin is old-fashioned liberal and Steele is something of a new-fashioned conservative– one who tries to give the appearance of being progressive while supporting a corporate-friendly agenda.

On domestic issues, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no contest between the two: Cardin supports a women’s right to choose an abortion, Steele opposes it; Cardin supports embryonic stem cell research, Steele opposes it; Cardin supports an increase in the federal minimum wage, Steele has said “The idea of the minimum wage is almost fallacy”; Cardin opposes President Bush’s efforts to partly privatize Social Security, Steele supports it; and the list goes on.

It’s on Iraq that the differences between Cardin and Steele are, for me, more problematic.

As a congressman, Cardin voted against the invasion of Iraq. He has been justly critical of the administration’s seemingly-endless post-invasion failures. According to Cardin’s campaign website:

Announcing a plan to remove American ground forces from Iraq by the end of 2007 will send an important message to the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi government and the Iraqi people that American troops will not remain indefinitely and that Iraqis are ultimately responsible for the future of their nation. While a gradual drawdown will allow U.S. military advisors to continue training Iraqi troops, it will put Iraqi officials on notice that the new Iraqi government must soon take full responsibility.

Steele, by contrast, seems willing to cut the Bush administration more slack:

I believe our government and military leaders must work tirelessly to improve conditions on the ground so we can bring our troops home as quickly as possible and have the Iraqi people take control of their own destiny.

At the same time, we must not buy into the political gamesmanship of publicly stating any kind of timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Any politician out there talking about timetables and timelines is playing into the hands of our enemies who have an enormous capacity to wait.

We must work with the Iraqi people to find a way to end the war and pursue peace without undoing the enormous progress the Iraqi people have made thus far. It is the Iraqis themselves who will ultimately have to make democracy work in their country. We should stay there only long enough to give them the tools they need to secure the very democracy they voted for three times.

After reading this interview with a lackadaisical Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki– in which he says he’ll get around sometime this year or next to dealing with the militias responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis– I have to sympathize with any plan that could serve as a kick in the butt to focus his attention on tackling the horrible sectarian violence tearing apart the country’s social fabric.

As Dennis Ross wrote in The Washington Post:

No one in Iraq seems to want us there, but everyone is afraid to have us leave. In the meantime, everyone seems willing to sit back, to avoid tackling the tough problems and to let us carry the brunt of the fighting. That has to stop.

On the other hand, Steele has a point– fixing a deadline for withdrawal , and sticking to that deadline regardless of the Iraqis’ readiness to deal with security, could leave that country in much worse shape than it is now.

The point is that I don’t have any brilliant ideas on what to do. But a change of leadership in one or both Houses of Congress isn’t going to make things measurably worse in Iraq. And it may encourage some new approaches by the Bush administration– most notably the replacement of the current defense secretary.

Finally, and not insignificantly, the current Congress has been one of the worst in my memory. The “Foleygate” scandal is the least of it. The level of corruption and favoritism exposed by the Abramoff affair is breaththaking. And this Congress did not approve even one significant piece of legislation benefiting ordinary working people.

Although I oppose Cardin’s plan for withdrawal by a fixed date (and I doubt a Democratic-led Congress would force such a plan), I can’t vote for Steele on that basis alone; it would mean a repudiation of virtually all of my social and economic principles, and a vote of confidence in a failed President. So Cardin will get my vote, and I hope Bush will get the message.