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.
But the hard truth is, on most issues, Obama’s agenda is still largely shaped and defined by the Republicans rather than the other way around. As a pragmatic, left-leaning centrist with a predilection for compromise, he sought a post-ideological presidency and found himself blindsided by tea party furor. And in a larger conceptual sense, he has failed to refute Reaganism, critics say. Fearful of the big-government stigma, the Obama campaign has shrunk from promoting its Affordable Care Act, despite vindication from the Supreme Court in June, and despite what even supporters admit was a bad sales job the first time around. In that messaging vacuum, the health care law’s opponents are attacking the law anew, casting it as a furtive “middle-class tax increase.”
Again and again, the GOP narrative has tended to prevail, almost since the beginning of the Obama administration. The Republicans successfully portrayed the president’s 2009 stimulus plan as runaway big government rather than what it mainly was—an emergency measure to prevent a depression. Even many Democrats said they would vote for the 2009 stimulus only if tax cuts were a large part of the package, although most economists said that tax cuts had little short-term stimulus value.
Can anyone change the conversation? A frank look at the likeliest candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2016 suggests that the current crop—with the possible exception of O’Malley—is unlikely to do much better than Obama has. Democratic pundits tend to agree that, setting aside Vice President Joe Biden (who will be 74 in 2016), only four other major Democrats can now be considered fairly credible aspirants to the Oval Office.
They include O’Malley, who recently set up a political action committee to stay in the national dialogue after his term ends in 2014; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who is winning plaudits for his handling of his state’s budget and Legislature and who cites Bill Clinton as a mentor; and Sen. Mark Warner, a former Virginia governor whose smarts, presence, and successful IT business career have continued to generate buzz despite his seeming avoidance of the limelight. Head and shoulders above them all is Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who remains hugely popular with a base that will be eager to see her take another shot at bettering/shattering/breaking through those “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling she spoke of in 2008.
Dark horses can always emerge, as Obama’s sudden appearance as a Democratic savior at the 2004 convention proved. At this year’s conclave in Charlotte, there will be plenty of buzz about keynoter Julian Castro, the Stanford- and Harvard-educated mayor of San Antonio who, at 37, could capture the burgeoning Latino vote that both parties seek (will he be the Democratic Marco Rubio?) and who, like O’Malley, embraces the Democrats’ new invest-in-education agenda.
Other rising stars include California Attorney General Kamala Harris, of Indian-American and African-American descent, who serves as one of the Obama campaign’s national chairs. Along with O’Malley, Harris is cochairing the Rules Committee. She brings glamour and a solid prosecutor’s record to the conversation. Harris “loves her job,” says her adviser, Debbie Mesloh, but she’s also eager to help craft a broader New Democratic message and tends to echo the “smart power” and “smart government” mantra of other rising party members with national ambitions. “She likes to say: ‘The question isn’t whether you’re tough on crime or soft on crime. It’s: Are you smart on crime?’ ” Mesloh says.
There is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a small-business advocate who has bipartisan appeal in a purple state and is ranked among the most-popular state CEOs by Public Policy Polling. Another Democrat with broader potential is Elizabeth Warren, the fierce housing advocate whose uncompromisingly liberal views may win a Senate seat from Massachusetts but who does not yet have a national support base. In addition to O’Malley, Harris, and Hickenlooper will be speaking at the convention. So will Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff and the current mayor of Chicago, who will no doubt also play a role in molding a future Democratic narrative.
Yet the serious contenders, apart from O’Malley, appear to be centrist accommodationists in the mold of Presidents Clinton and Obama. Consider the way the dynastic baton was handed off in New York. Since being elected governor in 2010, Cuomo has been a different kind of Democrat than his uber-liberal father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the onetime “Hamlet on the Hudson” whose decision not to run in 1992 opened the way for a centrist Arkansas governor. Despite a reputation for being tough on Wall Street as attorney general, Andrew Cuomo seems to be more like Clinton than like his father. “He comes from place where you would expect dyed-in-the-wool liberal. He was a man-of-the-people-type attorney general,” says Jay Campbell of Hart Research, a prominent Democratic polling firm. “Then he gets into the Governor’s Mansion and appropriates traditionally conservative issues like property taxes. [Cuomo pushed through a cap.] But at the same time, he can also champion same-sex marriage and actually get it done.” Strikingly, Cuomo passed up a chance to emulate his father’s rise to Democratic stardom in 1984—when the latter delivered the liberal answer to Reaganism in a memorable convention speech—electing to play a low-key role in Charlotte.
Hillary Clinton, who has said repeatedly that she’s not planning to run, has been a blend of pragmatist and liberal ideologue throughout her career as first lady, senator, and Cabinet secretary, but she has not articulated any new path since taking over State three years ago. She, like Obama, has repeatedly spoken of fixing Bush’s mistakes, rather than of conceiving a new American vision. “My overall goal and my big-picture commitment is to restore American leadership, and I think that’s about as big a job as you can get,” she told me in 2010.
FIGHTING THE NARRATIVE
What frustrates some like O’Malley is that this may be precisely the moment to try to change the national dialogue. As Democratic shifts toward the center have driven the GOP base further and further to the right, the old Reagan narrative has become almost a parody of itself. The tea party turned what was once a reasonable intra-party debate—about the balance between tax cuts and fiscal responsibility—into such an orthodoxy that no leading Republican can afford to advocate tax hikes of any kind. The GOP-dominated House is more unpopular than ever (Congress had a bottom-scraping 10 percent favorable rating in the last Gallup Poll); and Mitt Romney has failed to articulate anything like his own coherent vision in an increasingly fractured party.
Accordingly, the Obama campaign is eagerly painting Romney as a slave to his veep choice’s budget plan, an extremist solution that the Democrats say will effectively destroy Medicare and, according to figures from the Congressional Budget Office, end federal funding for crucial national investments from education to infrastructure. Stanley Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster, argues that the old Reagan narrative is a mere husk of its former self, ready to be shattered by a bold, new vision. And because of the yawning income-inequality gap stemming from the policies of the Reagan and George W. Bush years—and some of Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s policies as well—the new Democratic vision must focus on rescuing the long-neglected middle class, Greenberg says. “The question is: Who can bring the country back to the America we had before 1980?” His new book, coauthored with James Carville, is called It’s the Middle Class, Stupid.
On foreign policy, the aggressive use of American force during the George W. Bush years has left a similar sense of ideological burnout. The American public, says Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s former policy-planning chief, is “heartily tired” of the Republican “freedom agenda” that extended from Reagan through the second Bush administration. That is why Obama, she says, has not articulated a “doctrine” of his own about the use of force, “except to the extent of what we’re not going to do.” Slaughter says, “This is a guy who’s not going to waste our money and risk the lives of American soldiers unless he absolutely has to.”
Nonetheless, the polling and demographic numbers suggest that, even if Obama is reelected, it will be difficult for Democrats to take back the national conversation without taking both the House and Senate—and that is very unlikely to happen. Larry Sabato, a politics expert at the University of Virginia, says that the House is bound to stay Republican for the next few elections. “We don’t know the exact balance, but it’s obvious Republicans will be in control. The Senate is going to be closer, but 2014 is going to be a bloody disaster for the Democrats if Obama is reelected. Imagine what that six-year itch is going to be like.” Among Republican senators, only one seat, in Maine, is likely to be vulnerable, but Sabato rattles off a slew of Democrats who could lose: Kay Hagen in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Al Franken in Minnesota, among others.
Beyond that, while the Democratic Party and liberal base continue to drift, the Republicans still look more disciplined about message. Consider the respective fates of the tea party insurgency and the closest thing there is to a liberal counterpart, the Occupy movement. While the former continues to field successful political candidates, the latter has dissipated.
There were, of course, solid historical reasons for the marginalization of the Democratic message over the past three decades. It dominated the national agenda, both on the economy and foreign policy, from the New Deal until about 1980. But Democrats overextended the New Deal narrative with enormous spending on Great Society programs and the Vietnam War, leading to the stagflation of the 1970s and President Carter’s complaints of “malaise.” That Democratic overreach sparked the Reagan revolution and left a lingering distaste for big government. Victory in the Cold War turbocharged the small-government zeitgeist, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and other command economies seemed to vindicate those on the right who argued that the more free the economy, the more successful the country.
By the mid-1970s, the Democratic foreign-policy consensus had also fractured over the failure of President Johnson’s Vietnam strategy. The neoconservative movement began with ex-Democrats who crossed over to the GOP and led the way in deriding their former comrades as a party of liberal wimps—at least until Obama came along and effectively redefined the use of hard power, a shift made possible in part by advances in drone and smart-bomb technology.
In the end, Clinton and Obama conformed to the GOP narrative not because they particularly wanted to but because they felt they had no choice. Clinton had the same frustrations as Obama over the “Reagan agenda.” After he dropped his promised middle-class tax cuts in 1993—and, on the advice of Robert Rubin, his Wall Street-spawned Treasury secretary, focused on reducing the deficit—he sarcastically barked to his aides, according to reporter Bob Woodward, “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here, and we’re fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower taxes and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”
O’Malley says that, bit by bit, Obama has managed to tease out a new narrative. But other Democrats need to summon up more courage to hammer it home, pointing to the necessity of government investment in the future, especially in education and infrastructure, to revive the American Dream and create opportunity, he says. O’Malley may offer a test of whether such a narrative can succeed, at least outside of relatively liberal Maryland. He has gone way out ahead of Obama in pushing for income-tax increases (according to The Baltimore Sun, they will affect taxpayers who make more than $100,000 and couples who earn more than $150,000, far lower than the $250,000 wealth threshold supported by Obama and even Cuomo). O’Malley has also pushed through cigarette and sales taxes. “We need everybody to pay their fair share,” he says. “For the most part, what our country needs right now is not less; it needs more.”
There may be a vision—or at least a slogan—in there somewhere.
This article appears in the September 1, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.