- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

Maryland’s U.S. Senate candidates have more in common on key issues than either candidate is willing to admit.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democratic nominee, and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican nominee, both demand an exit strategy for troops in Iraq. They also want to preserve Social Security benefits for current retirees, but give workers more choice in retirement planning, and they say government should help provide more affordable energy, health care, prescription drugs and college education.

However, on the stump the two men sound worlds apart and likely will continue to emphasize their differences in their first debate Tuesday night at the Greater Baltimore Urban League.

“There is a big difference in the agenda Ben Cardin and Michael Steele will take to the United States Senate,” Mr. Cardin said last week at a campaign rally in College Park. “Michael Steele will not hold George Bush accountable for trying to privatize Social Security.”

Mr. Steele, a Prince George’s County native who formerly ran the state Republican Party, never took a position on President Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security. The administration shelved the plan last year after it ran into opposition from retirees.

Mr. Cardin, 62, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore, wants workers to have an easier time putting money into private retirement accounts to supplement Social Security.

Mr. Steele, 47, supports giving workers “some ownership” of their retirement savings, perhaps putting a portion of Social Security withholdings into private accounts.

However, Mr. Cardin has supported Social Security privatization plans in the past. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, he helped draft plans in 2002 and in 1998 that would have diverted FICA taxes to private accounts or market investments.

Republicans are criticizing Mr. Cardin for reversing his stance.

“Maryland voters deserve leaders who tells them exactly where they stand on important issues like Social Security, not a lifetime politician who talks out of both sides of his mouth and does one thing while saying another,” Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane said.

The Cardin campaign did not return a call seeking comment.

The candidates do have opposing political ideologies.

Mr. Cardin is a liberal who in the Senate can be expected to vote consistently with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. Last year, he received a 95 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Mr. Steele is a conservative, but with an independent streak that at times could put him at odds with his party.

The starkest contrast is on abortion. Mr. Steele is pro-life; Mr. Cardin is pro-choice.

Steele campaign spokesman Doug Heye thinks the candidates share no common policy views. “Their approaches are entirely different,” he said. On health care, for example, Mr. Heye said Mr. Steele does not agree with Mr. Cardin’s support of socialized medicine. Mr. Cardin has often called for universal health coverage.

“I support universal health coverage,” Mr. Cardin said at the rally. “[Mr. Steele] does not. There’s a big difference.”

Still, Mr. Cardin never has advocated socialized medicine. He proposes “building on the current employer-based system of health care” and wants the government to help small businesses pay for employee health benefits.

Mr. Steele also wants the government to help expand access to health care.

The lieutenant governor notes his work with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, dedicating state grants to increase access to 12 community health centers.

In a recent TV ad, Mr. Steele says Mr. Cardin is part of the “Washington crowd” and that his vote is for sale to special interests.

“Congressman Cardin took money from drug companies and voted against cheaper medicine,” Mr. Steele says. “Ben Cardin has taken money from special interests for 20 years. I want to ban gifts from special interests.”

Mr. Cardin has accepted campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies and voted against allowing the reimportation of cheaper drugs from Canada. However, he has proposed several bills aimed at lowering drug prices, including one that would allow the government to haggle for lower prices by using the buying power of its 40 million Medicare recipients.

Mr. Cardin also has proposed ethics reforms, including a streamlined ethics-complaint process and tighter restriction of lobbyists’ gifts.

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