- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

Will the real Michael S. Steele — and James H. Webb Jr. for that matter — please step forward? Given the topsy-turvy U.S. senatorial races in Maryland and Virginia, who could blame voters for scratching their heads while trying to figure out when a Democrat is a Republican or a Republican is a Democrat?

Or, more to the point, when a politician identifies himself with a certain political party, can he then claim to be “an independent thinker”?

Mr. Steele, a Republican seeking to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in Maryland, threw himself onto the press grilling pit earlier this week. He forked up a few choice and disparaging remarks about his “homeboy,” President Bush, and his “scarlet letter” party.

Across the Potomac, Mr. Webb, a pseudo-Democrat who seeks to replace Republican Sen. George Allen, invoked the iconic President Reagan as a role model while stumping in the Old Dominion.

In disingenuous defense of these chameleon candidates, their supporters twisted their mouths too, claiming that both would-be senators were merely showing their independence, not their pandering politics.

Don’t punch that tricky ticket too soon. You just can’t have it both ways.

Top Virginia Democrats, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and former Gov. Mark Warner, have praised Mr. Webb, the former Navy secretary under Mr. Reagan, for being an independent thinker.

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Mr. Kaine, told The Washington Times: “It’s logical that [Mr. Webb] would have admiration for a president he worked for. There is something kind of refreshing about that, not being so scripted and handled that you’re comfortable enough in your own skin with your own mind as opposed to marching lockstep in a partisan agenda dictated by others.”

OK, but whose values and policies will Mr. Webb represent? State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, Bath County Democrat, told The Times: “Jim Webb’s not a politician. He calls them like he sees them. One of his most appealing features is that he is not your typical Democrat.” (I’ll say.)

If some “yellow dog Democrats” cringe, they need to get over it, Mr. Deeds said.

“Frankly, to win an election in Virginia, you need more than Democratic votes. With politics, [Mr. Webb] is more of a policy guy, an intellectual, rather than a politician,” he said.

Over in the Free State, just the opposite political dynamic is in play. You’ve got to win Democrats if you want to win a Maryland statewide office, thus Mr. Steele’s dubious doublespeak.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a fellow Republican, said Mr. Steele “is always going to speak his mind.” He added,”I love his streak of independence. … I value it.”

Yet, Mark Clack, spokesman for Kweisi Mfume, one of the leaders in the Democratic Senate primary, got it right. “You can’t troll for money in the base of the Republican Party, the party of the president, then turn around and act like you’re trying to distance yourself,” he said.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman went one better. “Steele should know that if there’s one thing that Marylanders like less than Bush, it’s politicians like Michael Steele who try to have it both ways,” he said.

Exactly. Voters are yearning for a breath of fresh air from candidates, someone with intelligence and integrity and the guts to say what they mean and mean what they say.

Stop talking out of both sides of your mouth depending on your audience, on or off the record. If any of these candidates at all levels of government was truly independent or visionary, they would boldly break ranks.

They would run as registered independents and push their own platforms and agendas for the people, not the party.

Independence does not denote a wishy-washy label to hide behind. To the contrary; it requires a principled stance no matter which way the political polling wind blows.

For his part, Mr. Steele is a most likeable guy, who sometimes gets a little too cozy with reporters and speaks off the cuff, off the record and a little too easily.

Then he seems surprised — or even indignant — when his remarks are made public. He knows better, he knows we know better, and we expect better of him. Mr. Steele, the former head of the state Republican Party, is not new at this game.

The “I’m proud to be a Republican” Steele has sought to do some mighty fancy footwork trying to backpedal after having distanced himself from his president and his party to garner more Democratic votes, but he tripped all over himself instead.

“I’m not trying to dis the president,” Mr. Steele said while seeking cover during a conservative talk show on WBAL-AM on Wednesday. “I’m not trying to distance myself from the president. I’m trying to show those lines where … I have a different perspective.”

Really? Which lines and what perspective while he “disses” the voters? These even more confusing remarks came after it was revealed in a Washington Post political column that Mr. Steele was the mysterious source of a statement saying that being affiliated with his party was tantamount to wearing “a scarlet letter” in Maryland. He also bit the Republican hands that feed him by stating that Mr. Bush’s policies in Iraq are not working and the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina victims was too slow.

I hardly take issue with the steely statements, but Mr. Steele needs to come clean.

“The president doesn’t want a sycophant in the United States Senate,” he said.

Neither do the voters.

The troubling tide here is that candidates and their supporters seem to be throwing all identity labels aside for political expedience rather than independent thinking.

So where does that leave the confused voters, homeboys?

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