Martin O’Malley eagerly escorts a visitor over to the wall of his spacious Maryland State House office and points to his favorite picture. “That’s [George] Washington, by Rembrandt Peale, painted just after he left office. Look at the eyes.” I lean forward and examine the painting more closely. The eyes of America’s first president are steely and narrowed, and they are peering toward the left. “Aren’t those the eyes of a man who knows exactly where the conversation is going to go?” he asks, grinning.
Two hundred-odd years later, mastering the national conversation is still the central challenge for the Democratic Party, says O’Malley, the current Maryland governor and a likely future presidential hopeful. And the Democrats have done a very poor job of it, he says, in the 30 years since the “Reagan revolution” fixed government in the public mind as the nation’s main problem. For O’Malley, taking back the narrative means one thing, and it’s no easy task in an era when federal debt is at record levels and the 2012 election debate is focused, for now, on the radically pared-down vision of government of Paul Ryan, the newly anointed GOP vice presidential nominee. The challenge, O’Malley says, is to restore the long-lost concept of good and responsible government, and, at the same time, debunk the still-unquestioned premise that seems to underpin most political debates: America’s problems stem from too much government.
“Since Reagan, [the Republicans] have done a very good job of setting the frame and setting the story,” says O’Malley, one of a handful of leading Democrats who are spoken of as potential successors to Barack Obama in 2016, whether or not he wins in November. “That the enemy is government. The enemy is taxes. Taxes are a plague. Taxes are a disease. Taxes are things that must be eliminated. And the only good that comes from government is the elimination of taxes.… Too many of us started trying to adopt [Republicans’] message and repackage it as our own.”
Why did Democrats fall into this trap? He pauses for almost a minute—clearly reluctant to publicly criticize a “triangulating” Bill Clinton or a deficit-focused Obama, two Democratic presidents whom many critics label as guilty of committing these very sins. “Our party was too much on the run,” he says at last. “We thought, if you can’t beat ’em, you should join ’em.… We got a bit stampeded by those Reagan years, frankly, and I think we fell into the trap of not merely co-opting their language from time to time but perhaps even looking like we were trying to co-opt their policies, which were disastrous for our country.”
O’Malley, the chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association and one of the featured speakers at the Charlotte convention, is selling himself as a governor with a frank policy of raising taxes to make Maryland one of the best-performing education states in the country. (Education Weekly has ranked its public schools No. 1 four years in a row, as O’Malley never tires of pointing out.) “We are too reluctant as Democrats to talk about the things that work,” he says. “To talk about how [government can] improve education; how you get test scores going in the right place; how you create jobs; how you turn around an auto industry. We’ve fallen so badly into their frame, the Reagan frame that government’s the problem, that even in those instances when we make it work and it does good things, we’re too reluctant to talk about it.”
O’Malley is hardly alone in this self-criticism. One hears a similar, although more subtle, critique, from many other would-be Democratic leaders and even from Obama: how hard it has been to kill off the “Reagan narrative.” Obama has been fascinated with Reagan since at least 2008, when during the primary campaign, he pointedly said, “Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Later, facing the debt-ceiling crisis in 2010, the president complained privately to a group of liberal economists how hard it was “to change the narrative after 30 years” of a small-government zeitgeist dating back to the Reagan presidency, according to one of the participants. In defense, too, the GOP cast itself as the stronger and more serious party. As with the economy, Obama has sought to make the case that the Republicans, especially under George W. Bush, disastrously overreached abroad. But in both realms, what this mainly amounts to is a policy of counterpunching.
It’s not that Obama hasn’t tried to create his own story. He delivered the biggest social-reengineering program since Medicare with his health care plan, although for his pains, Republicans have labeled him a socialist. He has sought to recapture Democrats’ self-confidence in national security and defense—absent since Vietnam—with drones and special-operations troops, taking out Osama bin Laden and a substantial portion of al-Qaida’s leadership.
This article appears in the September 1, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.