Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, says Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown should have based his campaign on an “affirmative economic message.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Senior Regional Correspondent

Martin O’Malley has accomplished so much in eight years as Maryland’s governor that it seemed a shame to start an interview about his legacy by focusing on where he came up short.

There was no getting around it. The question of the hour: If O’Malley (D) did such a great job, why did the state’s voters reject his handpicked successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D)?

Moreover, how does a man who is “very seriously considering” running for president in 2016 explain Brown’s loss to Democratic primary voters across the country?

O’Malley was ready with the answer: It was all the fault of Brown’s lousy, negative campaign.

The governor, who steps down from office in 1­­ 1/weeks, insisted that voters had not repudiated his performance, especially on the economy. Instead, he contended, the Brown team effectively ceded the issue to Republican Larry Hogan, the governor-elect.

“They made a tactical decision not to defend the record or talk about it, and we saw the results that we saw,” O’Malley said in a half-hour phone conversation Friday.

It’s an understandable answer, for a politician, and there’s some truth in it. But it’s ultimately unsatisfying and leaves O’Malley vulnerable to the charge that he delivered at best a mixed record on jobs and taxes.

After all, voters are savvy enough to know whether they’re satisfied with the economy. They don’t need politicians’ ads to tell them.

The bottom line: O’Malley either should have handled the economy better, or exerted more control over Brown’s campaign. Probably both.

The Free State Democrats’ November fiasco adds a burden to what is already a long-shot potential presidential candidacy for O’Malley. He barely registers in national polls and is still working to develop an inspiring stump speech.

O’Malley acknowledged that Brown’s defeat was a distasteful conclusion to his term.

“It turned the sweetness to bittersweet,” he said. Although claiming he didn’t want to second-guess Brown’s campaign, he went right ahead and did so.

O’Malley said Brown should have copied the playbook from his 2010 reelection victory, when he defended tax increases as necessary to protect investments in education and other services.

Instead, Brown distanced himself from O’Malley. He tried to discredit Hogan with ads assailing the Republican over abortion and gun control.

Hogan won perhaps the year’s biggest upset principally by lambasting tax increases during the ­O’Malley-Brown administration.

“You have to offer an affirmative economic message to the voters,” O’Malley said. “If you give voters a choice between a Democrat who promises to do nothing and a Republican who promises to do nothing, they’re generally going to side with the Republican, because they’re better at that than we are.”

O’Malley has amassed an impressive list of achievements with strong appeal to the liberal activists who vote in Democratic primaries. Highlights include approval of same-sex marriage, repeal of the death penalty and granting in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. He also has spent heavily on education and is one of the nation’s most pro-environment governors.

He can point to genuine successes in the economy, such as protecting the state’s triple-A bond rating through a severe recession.

Although Virginia is widely seen as being more friendly to businesses, Maryland’s job growth since the bottom of the recession by some measures has exceeded that of its neighbor to the south.

The problem is: Beating Virginia is not much to crow about. With the cutbacks in federal spending, both states are near the bottom of the list nationwide for economic growth.

Then there’s the question of why O’Malley is handing off a budget deficit to Hogan.

“This is a state that despite many tax increases in recent years, despite increases in tolls, and despite the introduction of gaming, continues to suffer a structural deficit,” economist Anirban Basu, owner of the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, said. (Basu is serving on Hogan’s transition team, but he didn’t endorse the Republican, and his firm is nonpartisan.)

Basu and other economists faulted O’Malley — along with leaders of the District and Virginia — for not doing enough to diversify the region’s economy to reduce its dependence on federal dollars.

It’s not clear whether any of these criticisms are deterring O’Malley from seeking the presidency next year. He says he expects to decide within “a couple of months” and isn’t afraid of taking on Hillary Clinton if she jumps in.

If Clinton opts out, O’Malley’s checklist of liberal activism could serve him well in a wide-open primary race. But the Brown loss, and reservations about his economic record, will still need explaining.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.