Technically, on the calendar 2016 is still three years away. But the campaign for the next president of the United States? Based on the last few cycles, that's likely to be up and running by June 2015—in other words, less than 24 months from today.
When Hillary Clinton inevitably declines to run (more on that in a later post), Democrats will scramble to find a favorite candidate. Since ideology will be (almost) irrelevant, they'll turn to other criteria to choose. Charisma will be important, of course; it's how President Obama was elected. But if every president is a reaction to the previous president, Democrats will look at their outgoing candidate and seek to improve upon him. And if there has been one complaint from the left about President Obama, it's that he has failed in schmoozing and wheeling and dealing with Congress. In other words, he has a great agenda, but he hasn't been effective at pushing it through.
The 2016 primary field will probably feature two candidates for whom effective legislative wrangling is a specialty: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. To an electorate of liberals frustrated at the lack of progress on the national stage, these two will be able to say they passed a smorgasbord of liberal dream bills in their respective states. As president, they'll succeed where Obama failed, the narrative will go: they're Obama 2.0, the right ideas now upgraded with the legislative savvy to get them passed.
The similarities between Cuomo and O'Malley are striking—and impressive. Both passed extremely strict gun-control laws, proving adept at turning the post-Newtown mood into results. They've both also legalized gay marriage in their states despite historical opposition. And each has a long list of lower-profile, but equally substantive, other accomplishments.
But 2016 primary voters will be interested in their differences, not their similarities. Which of these two second comings of the Master of the Senate will make a better president? I'm certainly not going to pretend to know the answer to that, but voters might decide one of them is closer to their personal tastes once we pick apart their personal styles of governing.
The son of a former governor, Andrew Cuomo knew what he was getting into when he was elected in 2010; East Coast bias notwithstanding, the New York legislature has an unparalleled reputation for ruthlessness and gridlock. To break through it, Cuomo's preferred style has proven to be brute force. His willingness to wade in and get himself dirty with sausage-making residue paid immediate dividends: his first legislative session, in 2011, was one of the most productive in New York history. The highlight of that session was the vote to legalize gay marriage in New York—a proposition that had failed just two years earlier under largely similar political conditions. As we stand today, Albany has now passed a budget on time for three years in a row—all three years of Cuomo's governorship—for the first time since 1984.
Cuomo accomplished all this with a mastery of backroom deal-brokering. His philosophy is one of consultation and making legislative partners feel invested because they have been a part of the process from the beginning. To aid in this, Cuomo has the old politicians' touch at building relationships—one-on-one meetings, birthday and anniversary wishes, and tons and tons of phone calls. On gay marriage, one senator switched his vote to "yes" after he said Cuomo called him so often that he was sick of hearing from the governor. Indeed, when the going gets tough, Cuomo isn't afraid to hound legislators until he gets what he wants.
And, of course, those legislators are much more likely to listen if the governor hounding them is a strong executive: a Democrat in a Democratic state with the power of the people behind him. Cuomo has proven politically competent at not only maintaining a high approval rating—it's been in the 60s for years now, and the lowest it's ever been measured at is 55%—but also wielding his popularity as political capital. To help grease the wheels for gay marriage, he orchestrated grassroots campaigns in the home districts of the state senators he was trying to sway. His campaign operation succeeded at mobilizing pro-marriage-equality voters to the point where they too were flooding their legislators with calls, letters, and email. He cultivated favors from legislators by campaigning for them, but he also reportedly threatened to personally campaign in the hometowns of anyone who voted against his tax-reform bill.
Indeed, Cuomo has a knack for knowing when to balance the carrot with the stick. His popularity helps him convince fencesitters that his policies are popular too and that they would do well to get on board with them. Even Republicans beg for scraps at his table, thanks to Cuomo's unprecedented (for a Democrat) popularity in reddish Upstate New York. But his popularity also serves as a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) threat. Not only are endangered incumbents motivated to earn his endorsement, but they're also actively afraid of not getting it. His popularity is an insurance policy against Democrats falling out of line, and, to Republicans, it sends a clear signal that they would be unwise to attack him or his policies too directly. Cuomo's got the best combination a politician could ask for: loved by the people, feared by his colleagues.
Another talent of Cuomo's has been the ability to get results fast. According to one political strategist, his MO is to "announce victory, stand with the partners in a room—and then they work out the details later." Nowhere was Cuomo's efficiency at governing on better display than when New York became the first state to pass gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. Using a common emergency procedure known as "message of necessity," Cuomo was able to push the bill to the floor and get it passed without any hearings, testimony, etc., on only the second day of the legislative session. In the State Senate, the bill passed 43–18. Twelve Republicans were among the ayes, allegedly because Cuomo threatened to annul the power-sharing agreement that had given the GOP control of the divided State Senate.
But there is a dark side to these methods by Cuomo. The same arm-twisting that gets results also can leave legislators and colleagues sore. For instance, some conservatives believe that Cuomo's gun-control law is unconstitutional because he used the emergency "message of necessity" procedure in a non-emergency. Despite campaigning on a promise of transparency in government, Cuomo has also presided over one of the most secretive administrations in New York history. It's the flip side of his ability to get things done quickly; he tends to run silent on issues for a while and then emerge with a finished product that's already halfway to being passed. (This is almost the exact opposite of President Obama, who releases proposals far in advance and then gives the public a front-row seat to a protracted negotiation process with congressional Republicans. It's this excruciating sausage-making that has given rise to his reputation as a poor finisher. When Cuomo defends his methods, it's almost a slap to Obama's: "Normally when we release bill language before an agreement, the probability of that bill passing is very, very low...in my experience [it] polarizes the parties.") He's also not eager for the public to glimpse the process even after the fact; his office has been accused of editing and removing public records from Cuomo's tenure as state attorney general. If Cuomo runs for president, the adjective "Nixonian" will almost certainly come up, and while Cuomo's backroom tactics do seem to be the most effective way to get things done, one wonders if they'll trip him up as president.
The longer Cuomo's stay in Albany has stretched on, the more feathers he has appeared to ruffle. He has a poor relationship with arguably the most important politician in his state, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and he recently made headlines for disparaging the possible next mayor, Anthony Weiner. If true, his worst misstep may be working behind the scenes to oust longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—one of Albany's most powerful politicians. (Needless to say, if a governor tries to engineer a coup against a leader within his own party and fails, he can kiss his legislative agenda goodbye.) And it takes a special kind of confidence—some would say arrogance—to publicly suggest a major overhaul to the way the state legislature is set up. For all his successes, Cuomo doesn't seem—to the naked eye anyway—to be very diplomatic about his professional relationships. As a governor, you might be able to get away with living on the edge like that, but will it fly under the harsher spotlight and higher stakes of the national stage?
For Democratic primary voters, there's also another angle to consider. Cuomo has excelled at getting liberal bills through a divided legislature, yes—but he has also excelled at getting surprisingly conservative policies passed in a very blue state. Among his seemingly impossible accomplishments: he has almost disappeared the New York state deficit (from $10 billion to under $1 billion today) by cutting spending and cutting taxes, and he got a public-employee union to cave and accept a package of wage and benefit cuts just five weeks after rejecting it. Both of these speak to extraordinary negotiating skill, but Democrats could be forgiven for wondering what good that power is if it's used for "evil." If Cuomo does run for president, in a Democratic primary he will doubtlessly pledge to push exclusively for progressive priorities, but he'll face questions over a past that has proven he is emphatically not a party man. In many Democrats' eyes, his biggest sin was praising and even endorsing the 2012 candidacies of two Republican state senators who had been helpful to him—despite Democrats having a very real shot at seizing control of the New York Senate. This has already earned him the enmity of many activists on the left as well as the bitterness of New York Democrats who did not enjoy his support.
But ideology isn't the focus of this compare-and-contrast piece; methods are. And it's entirely possible that Cuomo's moderate streak doesn't represent his true feelings, but rather just his acknowledgment of political reality. Another of Cuomo's secrets to passing a too-liberal-to-be-true agenda is his willingness to horse-trade. Cuomo got his minimum-wage increase in exchange for a tax cut. He got pension reform in exchange for a Republican-friendly redistricting map. And New Yorkers wouldn't have gay marriage today if Cuomo hadn't promised to give electoral cover to Republicans who supported it. The specifics of the final gay-marriage bill were also the result of some intense haggling between Cuomo and the specific Republican legislators he targeted for conversion—that's why it actually includes a religious exemption. This may be none too pleasing to Democratic primary voters, but it shows an uncanny ability to compromise and extract concessions from across the aisle. Clearly, this is something Washington desperately needs right now. Liberals may want to face the possibility that the only way meaningful progressive legislation can pass in DC is the way it passed in Albany: by making a deal with the devil.
Clearly Andrew Cuomo is a complicated and controversial figure; national Democrats can be forgiven for viewing him "with a combination of grudging admiration and cautious suspicion," as one put it. He possesses all the seminal skills of a virtuoso politician and has parlayed them into being one of the best governors in the country. He is driven solely by a desire to get results and make a difference—and will do it by any means necessary. He's pragmatic to the point where he is just as satisfied pushing conservative solutions as liberal ones. He's prone to making enemies and is not afraid to fight below the belt. And if governing opaquely is the only way to get stuff done, then so be it.
But despite what some would call a slightly authoritarian method and style, Cuomo has faced remarkably little backlash. His popularity remains through the roof, suggesting it might just be the medicine voters want or need. Certainly, President Cuomo wouldn't shrink at trying every trick in the book to coax action out of the US Congress. There can be no one more qualified to get the wheels of government moving again despite a hostile environment. And, crucially, he has mastered the art of manipulating a legislature controlled by the opposite party.
That's not something Martin O'Malley can say in Maryland, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. Yet O'Malley has been able to rattle off a list of legislative accomplishments just as long as, and even more liberal than, Cuomo's. O'Malley's approach has been much more like a courtship; first elected governor in 2006, O'Malley made incremental progress in his state for several years, building up relationships and credibility. His most productive legislative session was his seventh—the most recent one, here in 2013. In addition to passing gun control, the 90-day session this winter increased the gas tax, repealed the death penalty, legalized medical marijuana, expanded early voting, instituted same-day voter registration, closed a corporate campaign-finance loophole, gave illegal immigrants driver's licenses, and incentivized the use of renewable energy. No, it's not Liberal Nirvana. It's just Maryland.
Unlike in New York, however, all these initiatives were not noteworthy for how quickly they passed, but rather for how leisurely the path to them was. While these bills all passed during one extraordinary legislative session, in another way they were all seven years in the making. That's reflective of O'Malley's willingness—in contrast to Cuomo—to let the legislative procedure play out. Most of the bills above went through extensive debate and public commenting—and were stronger for it. True, a few bills, such as medical marijuana, were watered down; the State Senate also chose to accept the House of Delegates's minor changes to the gun-control legislation so as not to risk the bill's overall passage. And, just like in New York, the deciding votes on gay marriage were obtained by including a religious exemption. However, O'Malley was able to keep the changes from being so great that progressives would cry foul. As a result, not only did these measures all pass, but most of them did so comfortably and with little controversy. Medical marijuana passed the State Senate 42–4; the voting-reform bill passed it 38–9. By taking the time to listen and respect the process, O'Malley actually decreased the acrimony in government that so many bemoan these days—while still successfully enacting some very progressive laws.
In fact, moving deliberately was a crucial part of O'Malley's strategy on at least one bill, the death penalty. The longer that the issue was in the political spotlight, the more opponents were led to doubt their position on it. O'Malley and his supporters unleashed a slow and steady education campaign that emphasized the lack of evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent as well as the risks of executing an innocent person. Where Cuomo buffaloes legislators to get what he wants, O'Malley is content to wear them down—with equally good results.
It's probably unsurprising, then, that O'Malley has stronger, more trusting relationships with legislators than Cuomo is reputed to have. House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller (both Democrats) have both proven helpful allies to the governor, whose charisma has endeared him to many in Annapolis. Comparing O'Malley to Cuomo, "Martin is more instantly likeable," according to former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. This fits with his style of persuasion, which is much less adversarial and more positive. O'Malley seems to believe that the most effective vote-whippers are friendly faces, such as he is to most Democrats. This also showed in how he recruited specific other friendly faces, such as the archbishop of Baltimore and the president of the NAACP, to persuade Catholic and black legislators on his death-penalty repeal. Legislators want to help O'Malley too, though. During the 2012 election, the governor built up a lot of political capital by campaigning unusually actively for a handful of liberal ballot measures, including same-sex marriage legalization and the DREAM Act. They all passed, affirming the connection between the governor and popular progressive policies.
As already alluded to, however, the big problem with praising O'Malley's nice-guy methods is that the deck was already stacked in his favor; after all, having Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the assembly isn't exactly a challenging environment for a Democratic governor. In addition, 2010 was actually a good year for Democrats in Maryland, unlike in the rest of the country; most of what O'Malley has been able to accomplish only happened after these new, friendly Democratic legislators entered office, not during the previous four years of O'Malley's governorship. His tactics may very well be too gentle to work in an environment as nasty and polarized as the US Congress.
Still, O'Malley has undeniably made the mechanisms of government budge where they weren't budging before. The gas tax, for instance, hadn't been increased in Maryland since 1992. On the death penalty, O'Malley secured the votes of veteran legislators who had voted against repeal during a previous attempt in 2009. Even gay marriage failed initially in 2011 (which, take note, is after 2010) before passing in 2012. The difference was O'Malley going beyond just giving a bill his blessing to actually attaching his name to it as a sponsor. This reportedly made the difference on gay marriage and other Round Twos by lending them the media attention that follows the governor as well as the time and efforts of the lobbyists on his staff. There may also be a benefit to drawing an issue out over many years, just as there is a benefit to drawing an issue out over many weeks: legislators have time to reflect on their votes and consider the reactions of colleagues and constituents to them. Of course, this slow way of doing business can be far from ideal when you're trying to get important policies passed, and it's the same gear-grinding that many have criticized Washington, DC, for. If O'Malley is elected president, will he face the same impatience that Barack Obama has?
A final point on the Maryland governor: O'Malley has proven effectual without being wildly popular like Cuomo. After winning reelection with 56% of the vote in 2010, he has dropped to a lukewarm approval/disapproval of 49/41. Clearly, O'Malley lacks Cuomo's magic touch with the public that has kept the latter's approval rating in the stratosphere even after passing a controversial agenda. (It is also amazing, and perhaps telling, that O'Malley has done so much national publicity, appearances on morning shows, etc., and yet he is far less widely known than Cuomo, who purposefully avoids national attention.) However, he is popular with the Democratic legislators with whom he campaigned side-by-side in 2010 (when O'Malley's reelection campaign probably helped contribute to the Democratic wave in Maryland). Overall, O'Malley is much more of a party man than Cuomo is, working well with his majorities but subject to being seen by the public as a partisan figure. For 2016 voters, this can be either a plus (he's a loyal Democrat, whereas Cuomo can be seen as wavering) or a minus (he's only equipped to succeed in blue states).
Martin O'Malley can be best described as a happy warrior. When he has a priority, he obviously leans hard to make it a reality, but he's not abrasive or molesting. He has made Maryland's government among the most liberal in the union through old-fashioned deliberate, respectful legislating. He believes in positive reenforcement and the power of a smile. Above all, perhaps, he's a hard worker, unafraid to put his legacy on the line to give good policy a better shot.
But he's also been accused of being too soft. He really has only one weapon in his arsenal—friendly persuasion—and we don't know how well he'd do if that didn't work. His résumé, while impressive, has one big hole: he has no experience working with Republicans. There seems to be little doubt that O'Malley would be an excellent president if Democrats control the House and Senate during his term, but how likely is that? Democratic primary voters will be getting something of an unknown commodity if they nominate him to spar with a divided Congress.
An unknown commodity is what President Obama was at the beginning of his term—and he has seen mixed success in bending Congress to his will. To a left wing that has felt those failures most acutely, you can bet that Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley will talk up their track records as governor—quite possibly raising them above a field with less impressive CVs. But if they really are the two frontrunners in 2016, whom should you vote for?
O'Malley is the liberal you can have faith in; Cuomo is the one with the experience in divided and rough-and-tumble legislatures like Albany and the US Congress. You can have no fear that Cuomo will push his bills through by hook or by crook; you can rest easy knowing O'Malley will go about his job in a way you can be proud of.
But if you choose Cuomo, be aware that he's taken conservative turns before and could be an alienating figure in DC. And if you choose O'Malley, recognize that you're rather idealistically sending a nice guy to tame a not-so-nice city.
If 2016 does shape up to be a cagematch between Cuomo and O'Malley, Democratic voters will be deciding some age-old questions. Is it better to be feared or loved? Do nice guys really finish last? And, ultimately, do you believe civility and respect can still prevail in the US Congress, or is it time to play some hardball? Your answers to these questions do nothing less than reveal your preference for president in 2016.