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O'Malley partisanship on display in Charlotte

ElectionsExecutive BranchGeorge W. BushRepublican PartyDemocratic PartyMartin O'Malley

For someone as partisan as Gov. Martin O'Malley, it seems strange that his party's most partisan affair — the Democratic National Convention — has, historically speaking, not been especially friendly territory for him.

At the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, then-Mayor O'Malley delivered a full-throated endorsement of presidential nominee John Kerry. The speech is now remembered for its exaggerated rhetoric — "America the beautiful, whose alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears; oh, my friends, to govern is to choose" — and delivery.

Four years later, Governor O'Malley attended the convention in Denver but had no speaking role, no doubt because he had endorsed Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

This year, he was back on the convention dais, this time in a coveted prime time speaking slot. His overwhelming reelection as governor, chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association and frequent appearances on Sunday morning talk shows seem to have restored his mojo as far as convention organizers were concerned.

So, did Mr. O'Malley's speech in Charlotte mark an end to his convention jinx?

Well, maybe.

As speeches go, it was standard, rah-rah convention fare. An energetic Mr. O'Malley interwove details about his biography and requisite patriotic imagery with touchstone Democratic issues like education, Medicare, immigration and public safety.

He also invoked another staple Democratic message: economic populism. The speech was laced with references to "billionaires" and, curiously, an entire passage dedicated to the dangers of "Swiss bank accounts."

Mr. O'Malley was among many speakers on a crowded dais, so I'm not sure how memorable the speech will prove to be in the context of his presumed presidential ambitions. But minimally he demonstrated loyalty to President Obama and continued the process of introducing himself to a national audience.

In light of his convention history, and the controversy surrounding his recent contradictory answers to the "are you better off than you were four years ago" question, Mr. O'Malley needed a positive convention moment. But if you look past this speech and at his rhetoric over time, it becomes clear that Mr. O'Malley faces another challenge that could complicate his presidential ambitions.

Martin O'Malley's political outlook reflects a distinctly Maryland-centric worldview. He has thrived in a state where Democrats dominate, and Republicans — at least as far as State House politics are concerned — are a non-factor.

The Democratic advantage in Maryland makes meaningful cooperation with the other party unnecessary. Democrats in Maryland can often rally their troops simply by generically demonizing "Republicans" for their alleged misdeeds, extremism and venality, or by subjecting specific boogeyman like George W. Bush to a rhetorical burning in effigy.

On the stump, Mr. O'Malley often favors sharp-elbowed partisan rhetoric. In 2004, he famously stated that he feared the Bush Administration more than al-Qaida. On another occasion, he likened fiscal conservatives to an "aberrant strain" infecting the body politic.

During one interview during the run-up to the convention, he blamed not just George W. Bush for the nation's fiscal woes, but George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan as well.

One has to wonder how a President O'Malley would contend with a Congress where one or both houses are dominated by Republicans.

When Mr. O'Malley embarks on his expected presidential crusade, he's going to find that caricaturing the opposition may not be effective in states more ideologically heterogeneous than Maryland.

Compared to Maryland, most states have sizable numbers of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents and Democrats — ordinary voters, and not the troglodytes of hyper-partisan campaign lore — as well as functioning two party systems.

In most states, permanent single party control of all branches of government is not usually a foregone conclusion. The one-note partisanship that usually works in Maryland is not universally applicable.

A national party convention is an appropriate place to deliver a rousing, partisan speech. That is what Governor O'Malley did in Charlotte.

Whether Martin O'Malley can also deliver a convincing message of bipartisanship — a relevant quality in any presidential hopeful — is the question I'm waiting to see answered.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore Republican, is a former congressional and gubernatorial press secretary and speechwriter. His e-mail is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsExecutive BranchGeorge W. BushRepublican PartyDemocratic PartyMartin O'Malley
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