Monday, August 16, 2010

Bob Ehrlich, Leo McGarry, and “My Guy”

For years, friends have been bugging me to start my own blog, but the timing never seemed quite right. But now, in 2010, with the kind of election cycle political junkies like me live for brewing in Maryland and across the nation, I finally reached my “now or never” moment. So here I am…finally, belated. Here’s the Richard Cross blog so many of you asked about.

I figured that the first entry should answer the question people keep asking me: “Are you working on Bob Ehrlich’s campaign this year?”

Well, the answer to that question is no. This year, I’m sitting the marquee governor’s contest out, except for voting and occasional commentary here and in the Baltimore Sun

Let me just say that I think Bob Ehrlich is a great guy. I first met him in 1988, when I was a student at Johns Hopkins University and he was a freshman legislator. Six years later, he hired me to serve as his first press secretary on Capitol Hill. Then, when he ran for governor in 2002, I worked on his campaign and, ultimately, as his State House speechwriter. He and his wife Kendel have been forces for good in my life and career, and I will always be grateful.

But sometimes in life, you have to distance yourself from what you know. So, I took a step back from all things Ehrlich for three basic reasons.

The first reason is disagreement. I believe Governor Ehrlich lost in 2006 because of an election year unfavorable to Republicans, strong institutional advantages favoring Democrats in Maryland, and some bad strategic calls on the part of the Ehrlich campaign. Governor Ehrlich’s former and current aides attributed the loss to one single factor: George W. Bush.

The “Blame Bush” argument fails on two levels. First, it is intellectually dishonest, as every other incumbent GOP governor running for election in November 2006 won – even in states nearly as Democratic as Maryland. Second, it is self-serving in that its loudest advocates are those whose fingerprints are on the loss, allowing them to sidestep accountability by blaming events on some unstoppable external force.

I disagreed with the sanctioned, George Bush-centric account of events, and was subsequently regarded as something of a heretic within Ehrlich’s inner circle, especially when I spoke out publicly. I didn’t do it to be difficult or disloyal. I did it because only by openly accepting the reasons behind the loss could the party learn from its mistakes and move forward.

The second reason is growth. Yes, serving as the speechwriter to the governor is a tremendous honor. But it had its limitations, too. Governor Ehrlich did not believe he needed a full-time speechwriter, meaning that – with the exception of major addresses such as MACo and the State of the State speech – I was largely unchallenged by my daily responsibilities.

When I approached senior aides about taking on a new role, they listened attentively, nodded politely, and did little. In effect, I had been typecast in the role of organizational writer. I could have lived with the typecasting had I been utilized. But, sitting in the State House mired in boredom, watching as junior aides with more zeal than wisdom were fast-tracked for growth-oriented positions, proved demoralizing.

Were I to be welcomed back into the Ehrlich fold, I have no doubt that they would ask me to play the same superfluous writer role I have always played. For the sake of my sanity and professional development, I needed to break out of the very narrow silo to which the organization had relegated me.

The third reason is the “My Guy” factor. That refers to an exchange between Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman, two characters on the TV show “The West Wing.” Josh is leaving the Bartlet White House to work for a presidential candidate, and asks McGarry to come along. McGarry smiles and shakes his head, explaining, “I already found my guy,” referring to the incumbent.

Bob Ehrlich 2002 was my guy. No subsequent gubernatorial candidate – not even Bob Ehrlich 2010 – will ever inspire the kind of excitement and satisfaction I felt during that campaign. For me, doing it all again reeks of redundancy.

So, there it is. I’m going to enjoy watching the great game of gubernatorial politics unfold during the next few months. But this time, I am content to play the role of observer and occasional analyst. It’s going to be a fun ride. I hope you’ll come along with me.

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