So You Want to Be Dems' Rock & Roll Star?

OMalley.jpg

Then listen now to what I say.

Welcome to the 2016 field, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. We've been expecting you. The Democratic field is better for your entrance into the race.

There are many Democrats who are less than enthusiastic about the seemingly inevitable Hillary Clinton. And while many of us admire and appreciate Bernie Sanders, it would say something about the state of our party that we couldn't find an actual Democrat we liked enough to lead our ticket.

You've got the credentials and the resume. Baltimore City Council, then Mayor, then Governor of Maryland. David Simon set The Wire in your town and based the character of the mayor on you.

You've got the look that Americans tend to expect in their politicians. Still relatively youthful, handsome and distinguished, with a lovely wife and cute kids. With your Irish heritage and mid-Atlantic state background, you could be another of Joe Biden's sons. 

You're literally a rock star. Frontman and lead singer of O'Malley's March, a Celtic rock band. How cool is that?

You bring more raw material with which to work than any Democrat since Barack Obama. 

And yet, when you announced your candidacy today, the reaction I had was, is that all there is? 

Let's have a talk about where you stand right now, and what needs to happen in the coming months to for you to close the gap with Bernie Sanders, let alone Hillary Clinton. If you want to be the Democrat's rock & roll star, you need to think about the audience your opening act, Barack Obama, warmed up for you, and how to ride the energy he created in the arena to a big finish of your own.

Barack Obama and the rise of the Obamacrats

Barack Obama changed US retail politics forever. So far, however, no candidate in either party has gotten the memo.

Looking back to the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pretty much evenly split the Democratic electorate. Obama's campaign out-organized Clinton's, and reflected the spirit and energy of the future. Obama not only won a good chunk of the existing Democratic base, he expanded the electorate by bringing in people who had previously been apathetic and resigned to the status quo. After the nomination went to Obama, Clinton was a good party soldier who campaigned for him, and ultimately became a key member of his administration as Secretary of State.

She therefore starts with the goodwill of the half of the Democratic base that preferred her in the first place, as well as the goodwill she picked up for partnering with the president. There's a big chunk of the base who's even more convinced than last time that it's "Hillary's turn," and that her performance since 2008 should be rewarded. And based on Carly Fiorina's embarrassing and amateurish performance on the GOP side, Hillary Clinton remains the only woman in the race who can win her party's nomination and the White House, and the symbolic importance of the first female US President simply cannot be ignored.

Clinton ticks all the boxes with the hardcore party regulars who backed her in 2008, then fought against the people-powered insurgency of Barack Obama, resisting him until he won the nomination. They resented Obama, and they've never gotten over it. While they gave lip service to his candidacy, they viewed him as an interloper who upended the primary process Clintonista Harold Ickes built to favor her.

During his administration, too many establishment Democrats went out of their way to find moments where they could disagree with Obama, contradict him, whine about how he didn't stroke their egos, or just generally fail to get with the program. And Obama supporters noticed everything. They grew increasingly disgusted as they watched the knives sink into our president's back, and increasingly furious with Democrats who campaigned for their own office as if they weren't even from the same party as Obama.

In the debacle of 2014, many Democratic candidates showed they'd rather pretend Bill and Hillary Clinton were still in the White House than be seen in public with Obama. Those candidates lost, while the few who embraced the president's support won. And yet the Democratic establishment still didn't get it.

Around that time I began to hear a louder and louder drumbeat from the people Barack Obama brought into the political system after years of apathy. They weren't sure they wanted to be seen as Democrats, if this is what it meant to be one. More and more, people began identifying themselves not as Democrats, but as Obamacrats.

A growing theme among the Obamacrats is that if the Democratic Party wants their support in the future, it has to be earned, not assumed. They want a candidate who will acknowledge that President Obama put our country back on the right track, and then explain how s/he will build on those foundations to continue moving America into the 21st century.

For the Obamacrats, another Clinton candidacy represents the restoration of the old Democratic guard, in which party elites decide who should win, and the voters exist only to ratify their choice.

You, Governor O'Malley, could be the one they seek. In order to beat Clinton, you'll need to connect with that portion of the Democratic Party who looked at Clinton and Obama in 2008 and said, we choose the future over the past. We choose Obama.

However, back in 2008, when the Democratic Party was torn between a symbolic restoration of the late 20th century Clinton administration, or a bold step forward into the 21st century with Barack Obama, you chose Clinton.  

Although you don't appear to understand it yet, this is a functional equivalent of Clinton's Iraq War vote. You got it wrong then. In order to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you're going to have to explain that choice away. Team Clinton will be pulling up quotes and video of you stumping for Clinton in 2008, then say, "We agree with the Martin O'Malley who declared that Hillary Clinton will make a great president."

The pathway to threading that needle is through Barack Obama. At some point, you're going to have to explain why you thought Clinton was the better choice in 2008, and how Barack Obama's subsequent performance in office confirmed that he was the better choice all along, and that Hillary Clinton just isn't the right person to lead us into the future.

Barack Obama ushered in a new paradigm of leadership for the 21st century. It's actually the kind of leadership I think you want to offer the nation. You're a lot more like Obama than you let on. You're both cool-headed, cerebral, data- and fact-driven wonks. You're less interested in who wins the day in the news media, and more on implementing changes that will redound to future generations. You don't pretend to be all things to all people, you just do what you believe to be right and let the chips fall where they may.

President Obama has changed the American electorate and raised the bar for what we want from our leaders. We want authenticity. We want a president to embrace the complexity of our modern world. We want someone who is willing to take on the hardest problems we face, even at the risk of his/her personal popularity. We want a president who speaks to us like adults, instead of pandering to us like a student council candidate who promises to eliminate homework.

Take Wall Street and the crash of 2008. Today you thundered that none of the bigwigs went to prison for what they did to our country.

Unfortunately for you, Barack Obama has already explained why that kind of emotionally satisfying outcome was so unlikely. He looked Americans in the face and said, the problem with Wall Street was not criminal acts by executives. The problem was that very little they did was illegal. That's why he implemented changes to prevent this from happening again. He created a new agency to protect the public from Wall Street predation, and brought Elizabeth Warren in to build it, raising her up to the prominence she now holds with progressive Democrats. We didn't get perp walks: we got incremental progress toward reducing Wall Street's ability to crash our economy -- progress that needs to be protected and built upon by the next administration. Obamacrats understand and appreciate this more complex reality.

Thus, Obamacrats heard what you said today and sighed. They heard an implicit rebuke of the Obama administration for failing to line Wall Street with heads on pikes, which thanks to Obama, we already know was never going to happen.

You sang a song that your opening act already performed with greater nuance and depth than your cover version. 

Until you learn how to speak to America about the past, present and future in ways that don't send Obamacrats streaming toward the exits, you won't become the 2016 Democratic nominee.

You Gotta Give Them Hope

In your announcement speech, you told us how bad things are in the US and how they're getting worse. You pretty much said we're screwed unless we pick you to fix everything. You failed to articulate in your announcement speech any positive movement we've made during the last six years. You effectively disappeared Barack Obama from US history. 

Then you angered and alienated Obamacrats even more with this statement:

Unemployment in many American cities and in many small towns across the U.S. is higher now than it was 8 years ago.

We see what you did there. Eight years ago was 2007, during the Bush administration, immediately prior to the worst collapse since the Depression. We're still feeling the effects of that disaster, and there are respects in which we've still not bounced all the way back. 

But that construction elides the hard work that President Obama and the Democrats did to rescue the economy and turn that staggering drop into a slow, steady rise. Obamacrats remember every moment of that process, and how Republicans obstructed these efforts because they'd rather see the American people suffer than see a Democrat succeed. Obamacrats also know that the economy has been bouncing back higher and faster in the parts of the country where Democrats control state governments, and lagging behind in the red states. Obamacrats know that rescuing the economy was the single most important domestic accomplishment of this administration, and that it was intellectually dishonest for you to frame the issue the way you did. But Republicans sure appreciate that you said it. "Even the liberal Martin O'Malley agrees that Obama has failed to improve the job market!"

You take credit for Maryland's progress during your administration, but most of your two terms transpired while Barack Obama was president. His support from the federal level was instrumental in your state's turnaround.

You have to give the American people hope, as Harvey Milk and a certain president understood. Progressives celebrate progress, and the public needs to hear again and again that Democrats are the party of progress.

No Democratic candidate can beat Hillary Clinton without the Obamacrats. You need them more than they need you. You can't pretend Obama never happened and get the Obamacrat vote.

Nothing you've said or done up through today has destroyed your chance at the Democratic nomination and the White House. But you have chosen so far not to climb upon the shoulders of your predecessor. The candidate who seizes the mantle of this administration will win the nomination. And so far, quite frankly, Hillary Clinton has bested you in this regard. Obamacrats are still deeply suspicious of her, but as long as she continues to embrace the current administration and her role in it, they'll get less and less resistant to her. Obamacrats are also smart enough to know that there's no Republican alive today who would be a better president than Hillary Clinton.

You're a virtual blank slate on the national scene, and you may have waited too long to launch your campaign. There was a buzz and sizzle around Barack Obama long before he announced, and he got in very early. You have your work cut out for you. Obamacrats may still be willing to lift you up, but so far you've shown little interest in their support. 

Obamacrats are ready for a new rock & roll star. Come surf the Obamacrat crowd around the arena and see how great it feels. Let them love you. They'll love you back. 



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