Thursday, August 03, 2006

Maryland Senate: L’Affaire Steele- Apparently, Honesty Isn’t the Best Policy

By Stuart Rothenberg

So now we know. The clues, actually, made this case easy to solve. It didn’t take forensics or truth serum or even a lie detector. No, it wasn’t Col. Mustard in the conservatory with the rope or Professor Plum in the hall with the candlestick.

It was Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R). In the restaurant. With his mouth.

I first heard about the crime when I was in my car, driving to work, listening to a country music station. The woman reading the news informed me that Steele had told a group of political reporters, well, the truth.

Being a Republican is a problem in Maryland, Steele confided. And George W. Bush isn’t very popular in the state, said the Senate hopeful, so he wouldn’t want to be linked too closely in voters’ minds with the president.

I almost drove off the road. What! “He must be crazy,” I screamed to the driver in the car next to me on the George Washington Memorial Parkway (who, incidentally, was shaving). The truth! “What the hell is he doing?”

Sure, it was off the record. But why should that matter? An off-the-record conversation with one reporter is merely an opportunity for another reporter to ferret out the source and name names.

Naturally, the crime was all over the papers. Reporters mocked him. Democrats attacked Steele for being hypocritical. (Other politicians are never hypocritical, of course.)

Since the comments came from the candidate himself, Steele can’t fire the culprit. He can’t say he was misquoted, since he wasn’t. Ultimately, he may have to drop out of the race. After all, we can’t have political candidates going around telling the truth. Heck, if Steele isn’t punished, other candidates — other politicians — might start to tell the truth, and then where would we all be?

So what do I really think? I think the whole flap — the anonymous comments, the campaign’s acknowledgement that it was Steele who made them, The Washington Post stories and columns about the lunch, the comments by state and national Democrats — is a waste of oxygen.

We all know that what Steele said was true. So what makes it news? Some people will say it is news because he said it. Well, I don’t believe that. It’s become news only because it’s outside the media’s predetermined narrative on the race, and because many journalists love to embarrass politicians, or at least those politicians that they aren’t chummy with.

Plenty of Republicans have told me similar things off the record over the past year. Steele’s comments were news only because a columnist decided to make a big deal about it and because other journalists, talking heads and campaign spin doctors (from both parties, apparently) made it a federal offense.

I spend almost every day trying to get consultants, candidates, officeholders and staff to tell me the truth rather than the propaganda that many of them offer. I, for one, am happy to hear a politician offer an honest and accurate assessment of politics. The last thing I want is for them to clam up.

As for Democrats trying to make hay from Steele’s hypocrisy, I suppose it’s inevitable. That’s the way the game is played: Attack him if he supports Bush. Attack him if he criticizes Bush. Attack him if he doesn’t mention Bush. You can be sure that Republicans would do the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot.

Of course, Democrats also are being hypocritical in this case. I’ve heard Democratic Members of Congress say pretty much the same kinds of things over the past 25 years that Steele said.

I’ve heard them criticize Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and other high-profile Democrats. Democrats running in Republican states and districts in 1992, 2000 and 2004 told me their party label was a problem and that they didn’t want to be associated with their party’s presidential nominee, whether that nominee was Bill Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry.

And I’m not the only one who has heard it. Every political reporter, columnist and analyst has talked with candidates, consultants and staffers who have acknowledged the obvious.

Just recently, I heard a Member of Congress — a Democrat — make off-the-record comments that were critical of his or her (pick one; I’m not narrowing it down for you) own party. I found the remarks useful, but they were off the record, and I have no desire to embarrass the Member.

Recently, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters at the National Press Club that if he were running this year, he wouldn’t “embrace the president and his agenda.” That, too, drew coverage from the media. Well, Thune and Steele simply were saying the obvious.

Tactically, Steele made a mistake when he backtracked after the story broke. But more than that, he had no reason to sit down with national reporters, some of whom obviously were hostile and looking to embarrass him. I suspect it was vanity that led him to do it. And that vanity, and mistake, has generated the kind of publicity he didn’t need.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 31, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.