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O'Malley's national ambitions could benefit Maryland

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 10:27 PM

So now our region boasts a second governor worth taking seriously as a potential "presidential hopeful."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's landslide victory Tuesday makes him a legitimate aspirant for the White House or vice presidency. O'Malley (D) beat a well-known opponent in former governor Bob Ehrlich (R) and defied a national GOP trend. He thus joins Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) as somebody whom the national media will start mentioning as a possible nominee.

O'Malley, 47, has the ambition, talent and, let's be frank, the telegenic good looks to make a go of it, though not until 2016 at the earliest. In the next presidential race, in 2012, the top two slots on the Democratic ticket are already filled by people named Obama and Biden.

"I've been surprised that he [O'Malley] hasn't received more attention around the country. He's likely to get it now," said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "He's still young and dynamic. He's part of the next generation of Democrats to be considered for office at the national level."

The prospect raises an important question for the Maryland voters who just reelected O'Malley: Is it desirable or just distracting to have a governor who might have at least one eye focused on future office?

In Maryland's case, I think it's a plus overall. The downside is that O'Malley might be sidetracked somewhat by the need to raise money, cultivate political support around the country and find lots of excuses to visit Iowa and New Hampshire. He's already in line to take on additional responsibilities as the probable next head of the Democratic Governors Association.

But the lure of the national stage would also be a powerful incentive for O'Malley to adopt policies during his second term that could benefit the state - or at least please moderates.

First, he'll want to push through some innovative, effective programs that would distinguish him if he tries to run at the next level. It's not clear what those might be, although education would probably be high on the list.

O'Malley is proud that he kept investments flowing into school construction and the state university system, even through the recession. An emphasis on education also dovetails with his call for Maryland to focus on creating high-tech jobs to build what he calls the "innovation economy." However, if he really wants to position himself as an education reformer, O'Malley needs to be more willing than in the past to risk offending the teachers unions. That could mean being more supportive of charter schools. At least he should aggressively implement teacher accountability measures under the federal Race to the Top program.

To become a plausible national candidate, Schaller said, O'Malley "needs one or two signature issues, possibly education, the environment, or energy. And he needs to brush up on his foreign policy and defense."

Second, O'Malley would need to build a record in his second term that refutes or at least challenges the accusation that he's an old-fashioned, tax-and-spend liberal.

That reputation isn't so damaging in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1. But it could hurt him in more moderate states, where he'd need to find support to succeed at the national level.

That could lead O'Malley to avoid pushing for increased sales or income taxes to pay to fix Maryland's overdrawn state pension system or raise money for mass transit and roads.

O'Malley already raised the sales tax in his first term. If he does it again, it'll be hard to dodge the "big taxer" label. He might be able to get away with raising the alcohol or gasoline tax, but only as part of comprehensive packages that also cut or restrained spending.

Ironically, one of O'Malley's biggest problems establishing his national credibility might prove to be his own success. He defeated Ehrlich so soundly that it almost looked too easy. That could fuel a perception that O'Malley was up against a cream puff that anybody would have thrashed.

It's only half-true. If nothing else, O'Malley showed he knows how to build a political organization and run a campaign. His political operation, constructed over seven years as Baltimore mayor and four as governor, is by far the strongest in Maryland.

On the other hand, it's clearer than ever that the Maryland Republican Party, as a statewide institution, is painfully weak. The party has pretty much been all about one man, Ehrlich, for years. And he got into the race late and didn't raise enough money.

Ehrlich also couldn't seem to decide whether his priority was doing well in Montgomery County (as he suggested at the start) or the Baltimore suburbs (where he ended up campaigning more). In any event, he was crushed in Montgomery and came up short around Baltimore.

Given that, if O'Malley runs for the White House or the vice presidency, he'll have to counter the charge that he's thrived only against weak competition. On the bright side, for him, he's got a pretty good backup possibility. He could run for Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat in 2016, assuming she retires then, and still end up squarely in the national arena.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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