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This is Sen. Ben Cardin’s next crusade

When it comes to preserving democracy, young people need to ‘understand they have a stake in the game,’ he says

Sen. Ben Cardin is seen in the Capitol in April, before the Senate passed a more than $95 billion war funding package that included money for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.
Sen. Ben Cardin is seen in the Capitol in April, before the Senate passed a more than $95 billion war funding package that included money for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Benjamin L. Cardin has been in elected office pretty much his entire adult life, but he doesn’t have to reach far back in his memory to find what he describes as one of the most important pieces of legislation “ever to pass.”

The Democratic senior senator from Maryland, who will retire at the end of this term, has long been a supporter of Ukraine, so the aid package enacted in April after months of debate was a high point. 

But it was also tinged with frustration, as opposition to foreign aid grows and college protesters appear laser-focused on the war between Israel and Hamas. To Cardin, who took over chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year after corruption charges engulfed Sen. Bob Menendez, the explanation is simple: People are forgetting history, and conversation has broken down.

“You’re either on this team or that team, and you don’t talk to the other,” said Cardin. “We have to bridge these gaps.”

In an exit interview with Roll Call, he discussed his “crusade” to educate the youths, the importance of civility in politics and his legacy after nearly six decades in office.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: What are some of your most vivid memories in Congress?

A: Well, on the negative side, Jan. 6, that’s sort of seared in my mind. I can’t get that out of my mind at times. On the positive side, the day we passed the Affordable Care Act was an incredible accomplishment. 

Voting against the Iraq War is something I will always remember, because it was a tough vote. My district wanted me to vote for it, but I voted against it. To me it was clear, but I thought it could end my political career. 

And to me, the supplemental appropriations bill [including funding for Ukraine] is one of the most important bills ever to pass. I pinched myself when [Speaker] Johnson said we’re going to actually have a vote on it. 

Q:  Now that almost $61 billion for Ukraine is over the finish line, what’s the next step?

A: It is a large sum of money, but it will only last us for months, not years. So we’re going to have to supplement that. The international community is going to have to continue to provide financial help to Ukraine, because it’s our front line. We know that if Russia were to gain Ukraine, they would not stop there, and ultimately, it could lead to American troops being in Europe. That’s a much more expensive proposition. 

The resources we’re making available today are to defend democracy and to defend a free Europe so we don’t have to fight another war in Europe. 

Q: With such an intense focus on the war between Israel and Hamas, how do you explain the relative indifference to Ukraine among young Americans?

A: That’s one of my crusades, one of the things I will be doing after I finish my Senate term: teaching history and civility and civic engagement. I just think young people are not learning history. They don’t realize what happened in Europe that led up to World War II. 

One of the most frustrating things about the Middle East conflict is that because it is so raw and so emotional, we can’t get into dialogue as to the needs of both the Palestinians and the Israelis in the same room, and we need to do that. 

So one of my crusades is going to be to get young people engaged in the process. I’m going to give a couple of graduation speeches this year, and that’s going to be my theme. Don’t get your information just from social media. You need to get in-depth information and get engaged in conversations and dialogue and listen.

And they’ll recognize that, yes, they have an interest in a peaceful Middle East. They have an interest in what Russia is doing in Ukraine. They have an interest in what China is doing in the Indo-Pacific. They’re all connected. These are all countries — China, Russia, what’s happening with Iranian support — trying to bring down democratic states. And we like our freedom. It’s what people fought for. We need young people to understand they have a stake in the game.

Q: You’ve been in public office since 1967, including the Maryland legislature, the House and now the Senate. What do you hope your legacy will be?

A: Well, I would hope that I’ll be remembered for civility, that I believed it was important to listen to different points of view. I’m very proud of the Magnitsky international human rights bill I worked on with John McCain. We got that done, and it’s now the gold standard for dealing with human rights offenders. 

In the health arena, getting preventive health care screenings for cancer in the Medicare program. On the Chesapeake Bay, [my work] protecting the bay started in the state legislature when I worked with Gov. Harry Hughes to establish the Chesapeake Bay Program. Or issues such as pension reform, getting pension bills done with Rob Portman, when people told us it was impossible.

Q: What else stands out to you?

A: I’ve only had two chiefs of staff in 38 years, and some of our staff has been here a long, long time. I believe in a very transparent relationship, and I love people who disagree with me. I’m going to make the decision at the end of the day, but I think this is an office where people can be very free with their opinions. 

We’ve had some really great debates on some of the hot spots of the world. I had an early staff person who’s now a state senator who had a passion for Central America back in the 1980s and early ’90s. Her views are pretty left, and she convinced me to do a lot of things. I give a platform to people as long as what they’re doing is consistent with my values. 

Q: If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would fix about Congress?

A: More trust in the system, more debate, more open procedures. Don’t just package everything into these omnibus bills, but have more individual debate on the floor of the United States Congress. 

And a predictable schedule, a schedule that is professional. Our schedule is crammed, and we have a challenge today because when the system was created, members of Congress spent their time in Washington. Now they’re spending their time on airplanes. 

Quick hits

Best friend across the aisle? Today it’s probably Roger Wicker, and two years ago it was Rob Portman. A senator I miss dearly is John McCain. He was my buddy on human rights, and he helped me so many times. 

Your least popular opinion? The Senate “15-minute vote” is one of my opinions. That just drives me crazy, how long those take.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? No. I’m a strong proponent of value-based foreign policy. The opposite of that is transactional foreign policy, and the best example of that is Donald Trump. You have to be strategic, you have to be smart, but it always has to be within the bounds of the values or the ethics of the situation. 

Last book you read? Michael Connelly’s “Resurrection Walk.” I enjoy the Harry Bosch series. 

One thing people might not know about you? I haven’t spent a night in Washington since I was elected to the United States Senate, other than all-night sessions. I always go home, even if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning.

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