Er, um, what I meant to say was…


A page one story in today’s Washington Post – PAC Funds Undercut Claims in Senate Race – is one of those delicious accounts that almost make suffering through this season of election rhetoric worthwhile.

The story, by Matthew Mosk, focuses on the Maryland Senate race and points out the credibility gap between the actions and deeds of Rep. Ben Cardin, who’s looking to move from the House into an open seat in the Senate. Cardin is running in the Democratic primary against former Congressman Kweisi Mfume and a host of others.

A quick glance at the money lineup on Open Secrets shows that Cardin – and the leading Republican in the race, Michael Steele – have sewn up most of the money, raising over $4 million apiece. A more detailed glance at the race profile shows that both Cardin and Steele – but no one else in the race – have aggressively tapped the PAC community for donations. Looking even deeper at the industries donating to the campaigns shows the money is coming from the usual sources.

Yet despite all this, Cardin’s election rhetoric tries to paint him as a populist – as in this TV ad quoted by the Post, saying he “always tries to do what’s right, what’s in the best interest of Maryland families, taking on the drug companies, the oil companies, the insurance companies.” To which the Post adds:

His campaign, however, has accepted checks from committees representing six large pharmaceutical companies, 22 oil and energy outfits, 27 insurance firms and industry associations, and eight HMOs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles such figures on its Web site.


The story then goes on to quote staffers from the Cardin and Steele campaigns bemoaning the necessity of having to raise campaign funds from all corners, falling back on the classic “arms race” defense: if my opponent wasn’t doing it, we wouldn’t have to either.

Added to that rationale was another old classic: campaign contributions have absolutely no effect on the decisions made by my candidate. It’s only the other fellow who kowtows to special interests.

The issue came up directly in a televised debate last week, when Mfume challenged Cardin on his acceptance of pharmaceutical money while he sits on a committee overseeing federal health policy. Post-debate interviews on both sides drew the predictable charges, countercharges, and the old familiar arguments.

At the bottom of all this lies the one undeniable fact about politics in America today: it’s all but impossible to run a multi-million dollar Senate campaign without collecting some money – and usually lots of it – from the very industries and interest groups you’ll be regulating as a public official.

What a joy it would be to hear somebody finally admit that. Usually it’s only the candidates far back in the pack – the ones with little money and no hope of winning – who point out such uncomfortable facts. In the meantime, all we can hope for are articles like the one in today’s Post that highlight the inconsistencies between campaign rhetoric and political reality.

What I’d really love to see is a politician who showed the same kind of candor – and humor – as I remember from the old advertising slogan for Chilkoot Charlie’s, a colorful sawdust-on-the-floor saloon in Anchorage, Alaska: “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.”

Alas, Chilkoot Charlie is not on the ballot.