Yesterday I talked a bit about Haley Sweetland Edwards’ account of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s dogged pursuit of data-driven accountability for government at the local and state levels, and its relative utility in the struggle against conservative efforts to disable the public sector altogether.
Such efforts only work, I concluded, with the right kind of leadership, and thus O’Malley’s substantive agenda in Baltimore and Annapolis is difficult to assess without a closer look at his leadership “style” and political appeal.
As Edwards notes, O’Malley is definitely willing to put in the hours on both governmental and political chores. And he’s got an additional “motor” in the way of ambition. When I first met him fresh from his initial election as Mayor of Baltimore, it was already plain to everyone that he’d probably run for president if he had the chance someday, and discussion of his interest in higher office has gotten tangled up with assessments of his policies ever since. Maybe this is said of every charismatic young Irish-American Democratic pol, but there was a whiff of Bobby Kennedy about him back then: a combination of serious interest in the practical problems of low-income Americans, some conservative cultural instincts, a strong work ethic, and a real delight in wonkery and in the political craft, exhibited sometimes in sharp elbows towards rivals. He definitely fit right into the “New Democratic” wing of his party in the late 1990s, but without engaging in the party infighting that gave New Democrats a bad name in many progressive circles.
O’Malley has on more than one occasion had conflicts with Democratic constituencies, most notably public employee unions and some civil rights activists. But most recently he has emerged from an intense and historic period of progressive lawmaking in Maryland that has brought him to the attention of a broader public as an unabashed liberal (approving same-sex marriage and abolishing the death penalty are hardly the sorts of identification a “triangulator” would invite).
O’Malley is young enough (50) and savvy enough to give his ambitions a rest if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, or perhaps rejoin Team Hillary (which he was a part of in 2008) and position himself to become her successor as vice president or simply heir apparent. He has no foreign policy profile at all. But the bigger question is whether by the time he does run for national office, will his “act”—the devotion to outcomes-based policymaking and public management, and the claim that such initiatives are essential to the success of progressive politics—seem old or even slightly disreputable? To some progressives, O’Malley approach will inevitably look defensive, playing on the “enemy ground” of government efficiency and “business-like” management of the public sector. And beyond that, any set of public promises to achieve “measurable results” is in risk of colliding with economic downturns, new policy challenges, and the destructive opposition of conservatives.
For all the endless (if often shallow and disingenuous) talk of “rebranding” the conservative movement or the Republican Party, and all the debates over Barack Obama’s ideology, governing style, and legacy, there’s been remarkably little discussion of any “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” going into the next, open presidential cycle. HRC, if she runs, can in no small part suppress intraparty tensions on her own. But sooner or later, Democrats and progressives generally will need to grapple with the question of post-Obama (or even post-Obama-HRC) politics and policy, and I suspect Martin O’Malley will be right in the middle of that discussion, earnestly if self-interestedly striving for attention and an opportunity to lead.
UPDATE: No, pamelabrown53 (to whom I guess I owe it all—sorry! you’ve probably heard that way too often!), I don’t systematically refuse to answer questions; just don’t have time for more than a few. But to answer yours, there’s no deep meaning I assign to “post-Obama-HRC policies;” I simply mean that the kind of “struggle for the soul of the party” that Democrats often go through during a contested presidential nominating contest may not happen until Obama, and perhaps HRC, are in the rear view mirror. Then the kind of controversies that have surrounded O’Malley’s approach to governance could and probably will become more prominent nationally.
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