The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Since 2007, StateStat, like CitiStat, has also become a model for analysts and researchers who study government performance, as well as practitioners of the confused art. In recent years, O’Malley’s team in Annapolis, like his team in Baltimore, has become an attraction for visitors, who come to see how StateStat works. Since 2007, O’Malley has hosted governors from more than a dozen other states and leaders from all over the world, from Peru to Pakistan, from China to Northern Ireland. In 2008, the Obama administration turned to O’Malley’s programs as inspiration for its model of how to manage the federal bureaucracy. And in 2009, Governing magazine put O’Malley on the cover of its issue highlighting the country’s best public servants. He was the only governor in the spread. In the last thirteen years, O’Malley’s general data-driven managerial style has even earned its own name among those who study such things: PerformanceStat. Behn, the Harvard lecturer, is writing a whole book about it.
While O’Malley may have considerable bragging rights from his time as mayor and governor, if he runs for president, he’ll still have some serious explaining to do. For one, his passage of laws banning the death penalty, regulating gun purchases, and approving an offshore wind farm will certainly endear him to Democratic primary voters, but there’s not a lot in his record so far that will warm the hearts of more conservative, but persuadable, voters in states like Ohio, Virginia, and Nevada, which he very well might need in a general election. Same goes for his recent move to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades. While it’s no doubt a boon for Maryland’s infrastructure, it’s generally a wildly unpopular policy among average voters of any stripe. David Ferguson, the chairman of the Maryland Republicans, recently wrote in a media brief that O’Malley, “determined to become President of the United States,” is pursuing a “radical social agenda,” “ ‘checking the boxes’ for the most extreme and liberal Democratic Party primary voters.” O’Malley has not crossed any of his own liberal base groups, which might signal ideological independence the way, say, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has occasionally run afoul of conservatives. Nor has he exactly styled himself as a great unifier—for years he has stoked a trans-Potomac feud with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who is Republican.
But perhaps O’Malley’s lefty, and loyally Democratic, credentials could also be an asset—particularly if he’s aiming for the penultimate spot on the ticket. His ironclad message discipline, combined with his roles as cheerful fund-raiser, proxy campaigner, and loyal attack dog during the election last year, could be seen by many as an impressive tryout for vice president. And should Hillary Clinton run, surely her people will not have forgotten that, during the heated 2008 primary, O’Malley was the Maryland state chair of Hillary’s campaign from 2007 to 2008.
More importantly, in recent White Houses, vice presidents have often taken on key managerial roles in the government. That proved disastrous in the case of Dick Cheney, but Al Gore, who was responsible for driving the largely successful Reinventing Government program in the ’90s, did a much better job. Joe Biden, who spearheaded the project tracking stimulus spending, which has been successful in minimizing fraud, also did well. O’Malley, given his history, would be a natural fit for that role—a fact he’s probably aware of. In April, chafing at accusations that he was too far left, he began referring to himself as a “performance-driven progressive,” and describing his management style in an interview with Bloomberg as a “fundamentally different way of governing.”
Should he get that far, O’Malley could take on the traditional VP role at a time when the federal government is uniquely primed for it. In 2010, the Obama administration passed the GPRA Modernization Act, which re-ups and codifies the Clinton-era performance management program and includes some new requirements, some of which were directly inspired by CitiStat and StateStat, including regularly scheduled performance reviews. (See “A Short History of Data-Driven Government.”)
Of course, skillfully managing the federal government is a job for neither the cynic nor the faint of heart. It’s an enormously complex task, to say the least, and no president or vice president in recent memory—none perhaps since Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has tackled it with any holistic success. But when I asked O’Malley if he thought it was even possible—is StateStat even scalable to the federal level? FedStat, anyone?—he considered it for a minute, admitted the enormous difficulties of the job, and said yes. Then, putting his feet up on the desk in front of him, he transitioned from O’Malley-the-wonky-manager to O’Malley-the-guy-who-actually-likes-all-that-politician-stuff.
“You know,” he said, “I think the truth is we need FedStat. At a time when people are so very cynical about what our public institutions are capable of delivering, the power of openness and transparency and the willingness of leaders to make themselves vulnerable by declaring goals could well restore that essential trust that we need in order to bring forth a new era of progress.” He stopped, nodding at the cadence of his own thoughts.
Then, like a hundred reporters before me, I broached the subject of 2016. If he were to go to Washington, D.C., I asked, would he be the one to implement “FedStat”? His face broke into a broad grin.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know any other way to govern.”
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