Why Is Martin O'Malley Channeling Jimmy Carter?

Jill Lawrence

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley made news at the National Governors Association conference last weekend by acknowledging the obvious – that he is laying the foundation for a possible presidential campaign. What really struck me, though, was his assertion that the nation is enduring "a crisis of confidence" that will last through the 2014 midterms.

The phrase called to mind Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech of 1979, in which he lamented that the country had not come together to solve its problems. Carter never actually used the word "malaise" –but he did use the phrase "crisis of confidence." In fact, it was the title of the speech.

"I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy," Carter said. "The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."

There is nothing wrong with the phrase itself, and the speech has gotten better reviews in hindsight than it did at the time. It could be applied with few changes to the current political and economic landscape. But Carter was an unpopular one-term president that most Democrats avoid emulating. Also, research has shown that optimism is a winner in politics, and being downbeat is a loser.

Here's what O'Malley said: "We're going through this crisis of confidence. And great republics sometimes go through these periods. Individuals call them 'the dark night of the soul.' We're going through a time of confusion and a time of polarization, and a time of real crisis about whether or not we're still capable as a people of accomplishing big and important things."

Whether you think this is true or not, is that a winning Democratic message? While polls suggest Republicans are getting more blame than Democrats for the current stalemate, it's hard to believe voters will be turned on by hearing that they and their republic are going through "a dark night of the soul." Also, that message will seem out of touch and unduly alarming if Congress eventually muddles its way toward an immigration overhaul, a big fiscal deal or both.

Let's just get the bad news out of the way all at once. O'Malley's summer reading list, according to TIME, includes Richard Haass' Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order; The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government, by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer; and Parker Palmer's Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Suffice it to say that Swedish Land-Use Planning seems positively frivolous in comparison. That was the book that 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis read at the beach, sealing his image as a colorless nerd. Another Democrat that Democrats generally try not to emulate.

President Obama is traveling the country talking triumphally about a nation no longer in recession ("We fought our way back!") and combatively about Republicans he says are resistant to working out solutions to problems ("Washington has taken its eye off the ball"). O'Malley's tone is quite different, which may be the point as he looks ahead to a race that may require Democrats to differentiate themselves from Obama. Still, it's a risky departure from the happy warrior, assertively cheerful school of politics.

O'Malley is an interesting and in some ways unusual politician who is steeped in both Irish culture (he leads a Celtic rock band) and statistical analysis (the basis of his reputation as a top manager, possibly the top manager, in government). He has recently signed into law initiatives such as gun control, same-sex marriage and a DREAM Act for young people in his state. O'Malley's State of the State address early this year, focusing on Maryland's achievements in education, innovation and other areas, was widely viewed as a blueprint for a national campaign. Since then O'Malley has hosted a climate-change summit, spoken on middle-class prosperity at a Washington think tank, and discussed his record and goals in many other forums.

He has the raw material to develop a candidacy, if that's the choice he makes, and there are certainly lessons to be learned from Democrats of the past. But some of them are object lessons in what not to do or say.