On gay marriage and other big issues, O'Malley plays backup to Cuomo

Given his role in New York's legalization of same-sex marriage, Andrew Cuomo might be the most celebrated governor in the United States at the moment. But watch out: Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland, has taken up his guitar to play with his band again, if only to show us he's not just a boring and cautious, middling politician with presidential ambitions.

Here's how reporter John Wagner put it three days ago in The Washington Post: "Instead of seeing his music as a liability, many around him have come to view it as a healthy, humanizing outlet for O'Malley, who, if anything, has grown a little stiff since moving to Annapolis in 2007."

The occasion for the story was a recent O'Malley's March performance for the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Baltimore.

I guess this is a good thing — Mr. O'Malley getting back in touch with his inner front man. The poor lad had to guide the nation's wealthiest state through the Great Recession, and that certainly would beat the Celtic spirit out of anyone who could claim to have one.

People close to Mr. O'Malley "have come to think he went too far in trying to sideline the music that so animates him," the Post reported.

Yes, there's no getting around it: Fronting O'Malley's March is the thing for which our governor is most recognized. The staff can list all of his "accomplishments" on websites, but there's nothing there to compete with spirited renditions of "Rattlin' Bog" and "Mickey Chewing Bubble."

Abolition of Maryland's death penalty? No.

Freeing an innocent man (Mark Farley Grant) from prison? No.

Legalization of same-sex marriage? No.

The purportedly powerful Democratic governor of one of the nation's bluest states — with Democratic majorities in both houses of its legislature — took one sustained stab at ending capital punishment, in 2009, and he hasn't returned to the battle since.

On extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, Mr. O'Malley is a nothing man. He supports "civil unions" instead. He takes the lame position of pledging to sign a gay marriage law if it passes, but does little to nothing to make that happen. (The effort failed again in the 2011 legislative session after being given good morning-line odds for passage.)

Of course, the governor and his handlers probably see all this as smart politics. He's on the record as being opposed to the death penalty; he needn't do anything else. (Doesn't even have to commute the sentences of the five remaining inmates on Maryland's Death Row.) And why should Mr. O'Malley, who might want to run for president some day, do something overtly pro-gay like taking the lead on same-sex marriage? Others will eventually get a bill to his desk.

That's all the conventional blah. It's the thinking of middling Democrats: Be cautious; balance the books; suck up to the business community; stay away from the hot-button issues — they just mean trouble.

But tell that to Andrew Cuomo.

The first-term governor of New York was the center of attention of New York's gay pride parade on Sunday. Here's a modern Democrat, and a Catholic of the same generation as Mr. O'Malley, who not only campaigned on making same-sex marriage legal but led the public and behind-the-scenes fight for its approval. And he did this with Republicans in the majority in the state Senate.

Mr. Cuomo was hands-on with the New York marriage bill from the start. A few weeks ago, he held a secret meeting with a group of rich Republicans who were sympathetic to the civil liberties at stake in the bill. He enlisted their help in winning over state senators of their party.

As the son of Mario Cuomo, he understood that Democratic politics, even with its new shadings, is supposed to be as much about conscience as about smart management.

In an account of the marriage bill's passage, The New York Times notes that, early in his tenure, Andrew Cuomo had managed to deliver an austere, on-time budget and a deal to cap property taxes.

"But," the Times reported, "[Mr. Cuomo] did not want those accomplishments to define his first year in office. 'They are operational,' he told his father. Passing same-sex marriage, by contrast, 'is at the heart of leadership and progressive government. ... I have to do this.'"

Martin O'Malley might be fronting his Celtic band again, but on the national stage of young Democratic governors with potential presidential aspirations, Andrew Cuomo just stole the show.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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