The Chambers of Commerce scattered around Maryland often boast—in an effort to attract tourism—that the state is “America in Miniature,” a not wholly original pitch, but it’s a harmless if forgettable gambit. Yet, as the midterm elections approach, I’ve begun to reconsider the slogan and realize that if it’s true, then President Obama and the Democratic Congress is in a heap of trouble.
There’s only one election of consequence in Maryland this year, and that’s the gubernatorial re-match between Democratic incumbent Martin O’Malley and the man he ousted from Annapolis in 2006, Robert Ehrlich. (Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a doctrinaire liberal from East Baltimore, is so popular that not only will she rack up 65 percent of the vote this November, but would likely win every six years even after she’s departed for the Great Beyond.) Unaccountably, the former governor, who just formally announced his candidacy and hasn’t yet ramped up his campaign, is in a virtual tie with O’Malley, according to three recent polls—one Democratic, one Republican, one neutral—and that’s led ostensibly non-partisan political analysts such as Charlie Cook to declare the contest a “toss-up.”
At the beginning of this year, even as Obama was battered by Tea Party rhetoric and Scott Brown’s stunning takeover of Teddy Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, Ehrlich—the only Republican of consequence in Maryland—was vacillating about mixing it up with O’Malley again. While Ehrlich remains popular—heading into the ’06 election, he had a personal approval rating above 50 percent but that couldn’t overcome the toxic national environment for Republicans—he supposedly didn’t want to run just for the sake of running. Mind you, Ehrlich loved his one term as governor, but O’Malley, in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, seemed like a lock and though there were premature rumblings of ’94 redux last winter, it didn’t seem likely to affect Maryland.
By March, Ehrlich decided that O’Malley, despite an enormous fundraising advantage, had a glass jaw and could be defeated.
Until last week, I figured the polls were an aberration and that O’Malley would win reelection by a close margin, not only by dint of the state’s built-in Democratic advantage but also because that Ehrlich wasn’t the de rigueur “outsider” (he served in Congress for four terms) and aside from vowing to repeal O’Malley’s unpopular one percent hike in the state’s sales tax, wasn’t communicating an aggressive platform for turning the state around. Ehrlich’s still a little fuzzy on the issues, and has, to my mind at least, adopted an uncharacteristic veneer of xenophobia. (Maryland, until recently, has been spared the inflamed rhetoric of border state politicians advocating deporting immigrants.) But just as Obama will be the main player in the nationalized midterm elections, O’Malley, guardian of the state that’s “American in Miniature,” will feel the wrath of disgruntled voters. Ehrlich’s really just a stand-in, and if he doesn’t have a fit of Tourette’s during the fall debates (if O’Malley agrees to them), he probably is even money to emerge victorious.
In general, mainstream liberal punditry is quite foul, but I dip my beak into that pool just to keep myself honest. If you’re an economic/foreign policy conservative (as opposed to a moral values scold, which I have no time for), you pick your lefty poison: which means, in my case, I’ll read The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, Frank Rich and Paul Krugman of The New York Times and The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. I now skip the more frivolous, self-parodying Times duo of Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd. The Post’s E.J. Dionne, although probably a splendid fellow on the tennis court, is just too Obama Kool-Aid soaked for me. And life is too short to waste time on the garbage that Eric Alterman, Joe Klein, Jonathan Alter and Charles Blow spew out, and actually get paid for, far too regularly.
But I do read, once a week in The Wall Street Journal, the barely controlled left-wing rants of Thomas Frank—maybe it’s masochism, maybe it’s because his column appears on the same day as the excellent Holman Jenkins Jr.—even though his whining, reflexive dogma is only for the stout of heart. As it happens, on July 14, I agreed with at least some of what Frank argued. He led with the stunning findings contained in a poll released by Democracy Corps (the outfit run by Clinton acolytes James Carville and Stan Greenberg), which not only trotted out bad numbers for Democrats in general but also the preposterous finding that 55 percent of the some 1000 respondents affirmed that the word “socialist” is an accurate description of Obama.
Frank wrote that this was absurd, and course he’s right. Obama, not so long ago championed as President of the World, does affect a simpatico philosophy with some of Europe’s leaders—France, Sweden, Belgium, etc.—but he’s really a left-of-center politician who has no trouble sharing conference tables with Big Business leaders and accepting millions of dollars of campaign cash from those boogeyman on Wall Street. Karl Marx would bust a gut at the notion that Obama’s even close to a socialist. Frank then goes on to blame the “pink scare” on the right-wing “entertainers” and “wise men” who’ve made socialism “the political curse-word of the day.” That’s when I flipped the page: contrary to liberal orthodoxy, Fox News, Bill Kristol, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are not kingmakers. An unemployment number that remains above nine percent is a far more powerful reason for discontent.
Now, a cynic might ascribe political motivation on the part of Democracy Corps: Carville, who’s made millions as a lapdog for the Clintons, might not at all be upset if the Obama administration is upended this November and doesn’t recover with the same finesse that his boss showed in 1995. In today’s very strange political culture, it’s possible that Obama—weighed down by continuing economic doldrums, Afghanistan fatigue, general confusion about his healthcare and finance reform legislation and the growing opinion that he’s in over his head—might pull an LBJ from ’68 and either decide not to seek reelection or face a primary fight. Enter Hillary Clinton, who, it can be assured, won’t repeat Teddy Kennedy’s inarticulate challenge against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
In any case, if it’s true that so many Americans are displeased with Obama, even a governor like O’Malley is in trouble. How else to explain his recent radio advertising that blasted Ehrlich as a Big Oil suck-up who was at the least a passive culprit in the BP spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? It could be that the O’Malley campaign’s internal polls were more ominous than the public ones and a decision was made to attack Ehrlich rather than take the “Rose Garden” approach that “safe” incumbents usually do. But the advertising backfired, drawing a spanking from The Washington Post in a July 3 editorial. The daily (which, surprisingly, endorsed Ehrlich in his losing ’06 reelection bid), didn’t mince words, and rebuffed O’Malley’s charges by noting that while then-Rep. Ehrlich voted for expanded drilling in the Gulf, and tax breaks for oil companies, so did Democratic members of Maryland’s delegation.
The Post continues: “Mr. O’Malley’s efforts to pigeonhole his opponent as an odious lobbyist—worse, a lobbyist for big oil interests—are not exactly an innovative rewriting of the American political campaign playbook: it’s the same old text, right there in the chapter titled ‘Distortions.’”
O’Malley has since shifted to warm and fuzzy television advertising, focusing on alleged accomplishments during his tenure, and there’s still no indication that Ehrlich can raise the enormous amount of money it’ll take to compete on the airwaves. And some commentators, including The Wall Street Journal’s Allysia Finley (in the subscription-only “Political Diary”) note that Maryland Republicans are worried that Ehrlich won’t counteract O’Malley’s sleazy advertising to full advantage. That may be so, but it might not matter: if so many Americans believe, however incorrectly, that the President of the United States is a socialist, then O’Malley, an Obama ally, probably won’t escape the negative perceptions. O’Malley, like Bill Clinton, displays no ideology other than his own personal ambition, but the Ehrlich campaign is counting that in 2010, like so many other Democrats, he’ll be a footnote by next Christmas, collateral damage in the country’s clear dissatisfaction with Obama.