Over the many years he has served Marylanders in Washington, Ben Cardin never engaged in foolish talk of conspiracies, never pumped his fist in solidarity with insurrectionists, never undercut public health efforts to save lives during the pandemic and never sucked up to a president he earlier deemed a liar and bigot.
Pardon me for praising Cardin for what he never did.
Consider it a sign of these weird times that an assessment of a respected Democratic senator, who has decided not to seek a fourth term, should begin with thanks that he never embarrassed the voters who repeatedly sent him to Capitol Hill — first to the House, then to the Senate — over the past 36 years.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Cardin than what he never did. In fact, the country would benefit bigly from more politicians like him — a good and decent man, informed and wise about many things foreign and domestic, a reliable warrior for democracy and the rule of law.
Historically, Marylanders have a solid track record of sending people like that to Congress, including a time, before super-partisan gerrymandering and before Donald Trump, when Republican candidates of moderate ideology could win elections in a state dominated by Democrats. In the 1990s, Maryland’s eight-member House delegation was split between the two parties; today, there are seven moderate-to-liberal Democrats and one extremely conservative Republican.
We’re at a very different place.
Cardin’s decision not to run for a fourth term comes as a sprawling national poll shows that Americans have a dismally low opinion of Congress and an even lower opinion of ourselves.
The Pew Research Center’s April report came from a survey of more than 5,000 Americans. What’s striking is not the low opinion of Democrats in Congress and an even lower opinion of Republicans — we’ve heard that before — but the view that we, the people, have been making lousy decisions.
“Roughly three-quarters of the public (76%) say they have little or no confidence in the wisdom of the American people in making political decisions, up from 62% in 2021,” Pew reports.
I’d issue a “wow” at that finding, but it doesn’t surprise me, not with the country so extremely polarized. Democrats think Republican voters make bad choices; Republicans think the same of Democrats. Voters tend to like the people they elect but dislike, even detest, Congress as a whole.
I have no idea what would change that view.
The problem is twofold: the severe polarization of the country generally and the dumbing down of Congress specifically. And by dumbing down I don’t mean just a drop in collective intellect in the House and Senate, but a decline in decorum, in the understanding and respect for process, and in the passion for progress. I won’t both-sides this; most of the dumbing down comes with a bright red streak through it.
Which gets us back to Ben Cardin and how he stands out among his classmates.
Way back, when he was a young delegate in the Maryland General Assembly and later a Speaker of the House, Cardin was a mixture of savvy pol and wonkish policy guy. He understood the ways and means of the state budget and earned the respect of his peers as a prudent leader in the legislature.
He took that reputation to Congress in 1987 and developed a grasp of many aspects of domestic and foreign policy. In interviews over the years, he displayed impressive knowledge of a wide array of subjects, from federally funded projects close to home, such as the hike-bike Jones Falls Greenway and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, to major foreign policy matters, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the erosion of democratic principles in Hungary under Viktor Orban.
Following in the footsteps of Paul Sarbanes, the senator he succeeded, Cardin became conversant in matters of state, from the sanctioning of nations for human rights violations to the staffing needs of the U.S. foreign service.
A few times each year, between 2008 and 2016, Cardin was a guest on a radio show I had on WYPR. When I opened phone lines to callers, there seemed to be no question he could not answer, whether about stem cell research or the need to bring more manufacturing back to the U.S.
He spoke up for refugees coming from Europe and our need to be more generous in support of them. He spoke out against cuts to the domestic safety net for the poorest Americans. He helped write an update to federal election laws in the wake of the Big Lie and the efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
It seemed to me that Cardin represented what every American should want in a senator and that Marylanders should take pride in having elected him to three terms.
I started out mentioning things that Cardin never did and never became. One other comes to mind. While media savvy, with occasional appearances on the cable talk shows, Cardin was relatively modest when it came to tooting his own horn.
Some days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I visited the Columbia home of the parents of one of the Pentagon victims, a Navy officer named Darin Pontell. As I was getting set to leave, Cardin and his wife, Myrna, arrived to express their sympathies. There was no advance notice to the media, no cameras trailing them. They were just being good and decent.