April 15

A decade ago, a little-known governor from Vermont rocketed to the front of the Democratic presidential primary race with a simple message: I’m the liberal. It was a revelation for many Democratic voters. Howard Dean’s ascendance was the product of a particular historical moment: Democrats felt beaten down by the Bush administration and dissatisfied with the cast of Iraq War supporters (Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman) then running. A candidate could make a pugnacious ideological pitch and quickly become the front-runner.

Similarly, would it be possible for a Democratic governor to become a leading contender in 2016 by saying to primary voters, I’m the one enacting the vision of contemporary liberalism?

Today in the Post, Kate Zezima analyzes Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s move to the left. O’Malley seems to be trying to follow Dean’s path, but he may face a formidable obstacle in Hillary Clinton. And so, his (probable) candidacy poses a question: How important is the liberal agenda?

With his second term winding down, there is almost no box on that agenda O’Malley has failed to check. During his tenure, Maryland has legalized same-sex marriage, passed new gun controls, increased the minimum wage, eliminated the death penalty, and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. In the past, O’Malley has portrayed himself as a number-crunching, pragmatic technocrat, but now, there may be no Democratic governor in the country other than California’s Jerry Brown who could recite as comprehensive a litany of liberal accomplishments.

The problem is that the liberal scorecard may not be the basis for how primary voters usually make their decisions, especially Democrats. It isn’t that ideology doesn’t matter, but it eventually gets overtaken by questions of character, electability, or things like the “theory of change” debate that animated the 2008 contest between Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, in which the most substantial disagreement was over how you go about enacting your agenda.

These days, Democrats are much more focused on an expansive and detailed liberal agenda than back in 2004. At the time, it was enough for Howard Dean to say that he’d take on George W. Bush without fear, and this allowed him to assume the role of liberal standard bearer, even though Dean’s record in Vermont wasn’t particularly leftist (he had been a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and was given high marks by the NRA, among other things). His record mattered much less than the attitude he embodied.

Today though, Democrats are clearer about their policy agenda, and O’Malley can say he got much of it done in his state. Of course, it’s one thing to say you’ve done all those things in one of the most heavily Democratic states in the country, and another to say you can duplicate them when faced with a Congress controlled at least in part by the Republican party. Whether any of the Democrats has an answer to that dilemma is something we don’t yet know — and it will bear watching.

Hillary Clinton will obviously be the gravitational center around which every other candidate will orbit. But the degree to which O’Malley can create a discussion about ideology and the liberal agenda will tell us a good deal about the state of liberalism today.