TPM Cafe: Opinion

Martin O’Malley 2016: A Gary Hart Redux?

AP Photo / Jim Cole

There’s some serious problems with either characterization. And as the Washington Post’s John Wagner suggested in a profile of the people acting as the candidate’s chief advisors, you can make a better case that O’Malley is a Gary Hart neoliberal seeking to topple a party establishment ion via themes and memes that don’t fall neatly into an ideological pattern—and that may or not make sense 32 years after the fact.

The Hart campaign of 1984 certainly had to have had an impact on O’Malley, who grew up in a highly political family and was educated in Washington, DC. He was still in his teens, and in college in Catholic University, when he began working for Hart in Iowa.

But that campaign wasn’t just any old political effort. As veterans of Hart ‘84 can attest, along with many less involved but no less enthusiastic supporters (like myself), it had the same voice-of-a-generation feel as the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns of 1968 before it and the Dean campaign of 2004 well after it. But then and in retrospect, the Hart campaign—and the inchoate ideological school it represented, often labeled “neoliberalism” (not to be confused with the European “neoliberals,” market-oriented conservatives like Margaret Thatcher)—was hard to typecast on the traditional left-right spectrum. You know, sorta like Martin O’Malley.

“Neoliberals” (the term was actually popularized by the magazine that is my current employer, the Washington Monthly; for all its shortcomings it had a better shelf-life than its alternative, the “Atari Democrats”) tended to be cultural progressives; many, like Hart, had roots in the anti-war movement. But they were united in hostility to what they called “interest group liberalism,” a temperamentally reactionary tendency to seek power for organized constituency groups that linked arms in defense of “their” New Deal/Great Society programs, and of all the excesses of government that went with them.

Hubert Humphrey was the epitome of “interest group liberalism,” but the man who occupied his Senate seat when he became vice president in 1965, Walter F. Mondale, may have been a close second. By 1984, he was a pol who had inherited all of Jimmy Carter’s perceived weaknesses without any of his regional and cultural strengths, and looked like a sure loser against Ronald Reagan, who was gaining strength every day as the economy recovered from recession. So it was no accident a revolt against Mondale’s nomination developed, led by Hart. For a brief moment, after Hart upset Mondale in New Hampshire, the long-shot campaign looked like it might actually succeed. But Hart could never overcome Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” taunt that the “new ideas” he stood for were all packaging and no content, and undercut by southern white Carter/Mondale loyalists and African-American support for Jesse Jackson, Hart soon succumbed.

Mondale’s subsequent catastrophic 49-state loss to Reagan, of course, validated Hart supporters’ belief they had been denied the chance to save their party. That’s the frustrated faith that served as a political baptism for Martin O’Malley and many of his young friends from around the country. And its status as an unrealized moment in time was preserved when Hart’s 1988 campaign died at its inception thanks to the Monkey Business sex scandal.

The most famous bit of fallout from the Hart campaign, even though Hart himself always kept his distance from it, was the New Democrat movement centered in the Democratic Leadership Council, which continued the neoliberals’ determination to take on “interest group liberalism” and rebuild the Democratic Party’s reputation for competence on fiscal, economic and national security matters. It’s no surprise that among the Hart alumni who are now advising O’Malley, at least two were prominent DLCers (Doug Wilson was the group’s political director for a while; Phil Noble long headed up its South Carolina chapter). More to the point, O’Malley himself spent a long time in the DLC orbit, immediately after his election as mayor of Baltimore.

But as I can attest as a long-time DLC staff member myself, the former neoliberals in the New Democrat movement were a different breed than the deal-cutting southern centrists like John Breaux, and thought themselves modernizers of the progressive tradition, not “moderates.” And so even as Gary Hart was ideologically ambivalent in 1984, so, too, are his heirs, including O’Malley, who has also inherited the original Atari Democrats’ tendency to believe technology can solve a lot of problems that defeated past progressives.

The grand irony, of course, is that in 2016 O’Malley and company are taking on the unquestioned heir of the New Democrat tradition. And Hillary Clinton doesn’t easily fit into the idea of a 21st century Walter Mondale. For one thing, her political patron, her husband, did a bit better in presidential elections than did Jimmy Carter, and so did her most recent boss, the 44th president of the United States.

But if O’Malley wants to play Hart, and will try to make Hillary play Fritz, you also have to figure Bernie Sanders is his Jesse Jackson, and Linc Chafee is some hopeless early flameout like Reuben Askew or Hart’s old boss George McGovern. if Jim Webb runs, he’s a reasonable facsimile of John Glenn. People will again ask “Where’s the beef?” and O’Malley and his old comrades are likely to end the year even more frustrated than they were in 1984. But nothing inspires crazy hope more than a near-miss. And somewhere in the 50-something and 60-something psyches of the Hart ‘84 alums you can still find the live-off-the-land young canvassers of yore, though as one of them told Wagner: “I’m not going to sleep in bathtubs any more.”

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.