Thursday, August 18, 2011

Maryland, 2014, and the "New" Peter Franchot

One thing that has always fascinated me is the ability of some politicians to reinvent themselves. In today’s popular verbiage, some might call it rebranding.
Richard Nixon was a master of this phenomenon. After back to back losses at the presidential and gubernatorial level, he reemerged in 1968 as the “New Nixon” – a more statesmanlike version of the bare-knuckle politician who had been Dwight Eisenhower’s political hatchet man in the 1950s.
Bill Clinton demonstrated special deft for this skill as well. As a presidential candidate in 1992, he effortlessly glided towards the left when he needed to broaden his support during the Democratic primary campaign, and then back to the center just in time for the general election. As president, this same skill helped him successfully contend with a GOP Congress. And, each time, Clinton completed the transition with his credibility intact – a talent some Democratic politicians never quite master.
Some people condemned Nixon and Clinton for their chameleon-like skills. But for me, it has contributed to my open admiration for the former and grudging respect for the latter.
Here in Maryland, I noticed that one of our state’s leaders and aspiring gubernatorial wannabes is demonstrating a similar knack for skillful self-repositioning.
Throughout much of his career, Peter Franchot has been a “Takoma Park Democrat” – a reference to the Montgomery County community known for its unbending, unapologetic, grungy liberal ways.  This term defined his brand, in effect.  It established his identity and his role on the state’s political landscape. 
As far as I can tell, this has been an accurate description.
During his 20 years in the legislature, Franchot built a solid reputation for straightforward, outspoken, soapbox-loving, bomb-throwing liberalism. In 1988, when George Bush became the last Republican presidential candidate to carry Maryland, he unsuccessfully challenged liberal GOP Congresswoman Connie Morella from the left.
In 2006, Maryland Business for Responsive Government scored him at 36 percent – meaning that two-thirds of his colleagues in the House of Delegates were to the right of him on business issues according to MBRG’s calculations.
In 2003, Franchot happily settled into the role of resident progressive foil to the first GOP governor in 40 years. And, in 2006, when he challenged Ehrlich ally William Donald Schaefer for the Democratic nomination for comptroller, Franchot expressed a desire to expand the job’s purview into policy areas with special cache among liberals.
However, since his election and reelection as comptroller, a “New Franchot” has definitely emerged.
The old, fire-breathing liberal is gone. In his place stands a responsible executive with a heightened sense of fiscal restraint, as well as a willingness to chastise Democratic party leaders – including Governor Martin O’Malley – who do not live up to those principles.
Politicians adjust their positions and personas in accordance with changing political reality all the time. But it was this article by WBAL Radio’s Robert Lang which illustrated for me the seeming breadth and depth of Franchot’s transformation.
During an appearance on one of the station’s talk programs, Franchot summarized his policy priorities as:
1)      “No new taxes, especially in the special session.”
2)      Performing a “complete scrubbing” of state spending, and finding ways of improving healthcare and education “with less dollars.”
3)      Helping Maryland “restructure” its relationship with small business so that it serves “as a partner.”
Didn’t Bob Ehrlich’s campaign – albeit in a far more muddled fashion – attempt to articulate all three of these points during the gubernatorial election last year?
So where has Peter Franchot, the in-your-face liberal and gleeful Republican thorn, gone?
Franchot’s own Wikipedia entry retains only scant evidence of him. In discussing his voting record during his 20 years in the legislature, only two specific votes are mentioned: A 1998 vote against income tax reductions, and a 2005 vote against slots.  Neither of these votes is evidence of unwavering progressivism.

Instead, elsewhere the entry refers to him as an, "independent leader who is sometimes a thorn in the governor's side, but, commands respect from both Republicans and Democrats."
So, what’s going on here?
First, and most obviously, Franchot wants to be governor.
That’s why he continues to crisscross the state and has effectively set up semi-permanent residence in battleground areas like Baltimore County. Franchot senses that the political pendulum in Maryland may swing back to the right in 2014, perhaps as a result of O’Malley fatigue among voters, and is self-positioning to take advantage of it. With the state GOP in a state of dysfunction, Franchot is expanding his message so he can credibly run as an agent of change from within the Democratic Party.  
Second, Franchot is a more astute politico than a lot of us – including myself - ever gave him credit for.
Anyone who saw this guy as a one-note partisan from the leftward fringes of the Democratic Party underestimated him.  Franchot is a liberal’s liberal who has redefined himself as a centrist and a fiscal watchdog – and seems to have gotten away with it.  In effect, he stepped out of his old political persona and slid comfortably into another one without anyone noticing. This is a pretty impressive feat – one I cannot recall anyone else in Maryland’s recent political past achieving.
I do not think there was ever really a New Nixon or a New Clinton – just different facets of two complicated, multi-dimensional, calculating, sophisticated personalities. I think Franchot’s transformation can be explained in the same way.
One thing is certain: If Franchot is the Democratic nominee in 2014, Republicans who want to beat him better be prepared to run against the old Franchot and not the new one. And, they should probably start running now. Otherwise, by the time 2014 gets here, Franchot will have successfully inoculated himself from such attacks. That is, assuming he hasn’t done that already.


  1. Franchot's repositioning seems aimed at an 'outskirts' strategy. He's specifically chasing Democrat votes in exurban and rural counties, think Harford, Queen Anne's, Frederick, and Calvert. The strategy makes sense if you expect Gansler, Brown, Ulman, Smith and a few others from the 95-corridor to enter the race. By default Franchot scores 2nd in Montgomery County and if he captures the aforementioned counties then he will win the race under the commonly held assumption that the other candidates split the vote in the big 3.

  2. Peter Franchot has an amazing ability to talk to the interests of whomever is in front of him at the moment. How can he ask for small Maryland businesses to believe his transformation and support him when he openly seeks Project Labor Agreements on State funded projects that would force non-union construction firms to forgo using their own employees and hire Union workers inorder to work on a project? How can Peter shill for a policy that shuts out 94% of Maryland construction companies infavor of the State's 6 percent Union contractors? How is he a watchdog when he advocates for a policy that will keep Md businesses off the site, decrease competition in bidding for public works projects and increase the cost of State procurement by 10 to 20 percent per project?

    Peter is willing to be whatever you want him to be as long as you call him Governor.