In 2010, Governor Martin O’Malley stood for re-election in a poor year for Democrats. He was facing a strong challenge from his Republican opponent and the financial crisis and its economic and fiscal aftermath was hitting Maryland hard. He set about making an argument for how Maryland was going to confront this challenge which went along the following lines: we have to make tough choices together but if we do then we will build a better future for ourselves and our children.
It worked. Despite enormous fiscal retrenchment, O’Malley went from a seven point win in 2006 to a fourteen point win despite having raised taxes significantly in his first term and the fact that the tide was against Democratic governors.
He had a strong record to defend on four critical fronts and his campaign argument reinforced his credibility. He had taken and was planning to continue taking responsible action on the deficit. He had cut college fees and ensured the burden of pain was fairly spread, not least by the introduction of a more progressive tax code, a state living wage and by overshooting the target for registration for health insurance. This was the fairness aspect of his case. Then there was opportunity. He created a new labour exchange, a venture fund which has invested in and attracted high growth firms, and promotion of the state college sector. Finally, there is authority. O’Malley took a grip of the situation, he changed the way government functioned with new transparency and a ‘dash-board’ approach (where performance of key services was easily accessible), and brought the management of critical state projects in-house.
O’Malley’s story is a fascinating one. It is a model of modern governance. It also has wider political application. The four components of his success – responsibility, fairness, opportunity, authority – are the four bases of political success more generally. They are a framework through which any political argument can be judged. The proportional importance between them shifts from context to context and election to election. Indeed, the proportions can be shifted by the political argument itself. However, it is the frame through which any political party or leader is judged. If a party leads on three out of four bases, they are almost certain to win.
Next year’s general election will be won by the party that meets these challenges most effectively. At this point we do not know which that would be. It’s highly uncertain. As things stand, it would appear that the Conservatives are ahead on responsibility (eg the deficit) and authority (on the basis of the coverage since, Ed Miliband’s speech this week was not helpful with regards to either of these measures). Labour is clearly leading on fairness. Opportunity is far from clear. Labour’s pitch on living standards, access to housing, and industrial investment are counter-balanced by the Conservatives leading on enterprise and the recovery.
So if the Conservatives are leading on two, Labour on one, and one is tied, that means the Conservatives should win? It all depends on whether Labour can bend and frame the election argument in the direction of fairness as it has tried to do this week with its mansion tax, tax on cigarettes, and closing loopholes to fund an increase in spending on the NHS. If it can also narrow the gap on responsibility and creep ahead on opportunity then it is likely to win. Conversely, if the Conservatives can maintain their lead on authority and responsibility, creep into a lead on opportunity, and narrow the gap on fairness (or make it less consequential) then they will win.
The beauty of O’Malley’s approach is that he had a convincing story to tell on all fronts. He governed as he campaigned; he was true to his word. We have parties that are a long way off from achieving such unity in either message or governing capacity. Because of this the next election is very uncertain. O’Malley will step down in November having served two terms. Where will he go next? Well, there is a Democratic primary gathering pace next year. Will Hillary have a challenger?