By 1966, former Vice President Richard Nixon, defeated for the presidency in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962, had embarked on his political comeback. That fall he was campaigning for GOP congressional candidates, and also emerging as a sharp critic of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy.
A few days before the election, Nixon issued an especially critical statement on Vietnam. The next day, President Johnson angrily retaliated at a press conference by calling Nixon a "chronic campaigner ... [who] find [s] fault with his country and his government during a period of October every two years."
But LBJ’s personal attack on Nixon elevated rather than diminished him. It proved Nixon’s continuing relevance on the national stage, and helped position him as the logical frontrunner for 1968.
I immediately thought about this incident when I heard about Governor O’Malley’s quip that Comptroller Peter Franchot was “our version of Mitt Romney” in light of Franchot’s opposition to O’Malley’s plan to impose the six percent sales tax onto gasoline sales.
By comparing Franchot to the chameleon-like Romney, O’Malley was trying to remind people that the comptroller, a crusader against the gas tax increase and other unpopular aspects of the governor’s agenda, had amassed a solidly progressive voting record as a member of the House of Delegates.
Among that voting record: Past votes in support of increasing the gas tax.
So, I get what the governor was trying to accomplish. I just don’t think it worked.
First, as I argued in a previous blog, Comptroller Franchot has astutely positioned himself as a fiscally responsible executive. Five years in the high profile position of comptroller has probably done more to shape Franchot’s image in the eyes of Marylanders than twenty years as a progressive legislator from Takoma Park.
While his voting record will be relevant if he runs for governor in 2014, my sense is that perceived inconsistencies between the “old” and the “new” Franchot will not be the silver bullets some expect them to be.
Some past votes can be explained in the context of the time in which they were made. In the case of the gas tax increase, for example, Franchot can argue that supporting a gas tax increase as a legislator and opposing an extension of the sales tax to gasoline sales as comptroller during a time of already soaring gas prices, higher tolls, and general economic uncertainty were equally correct decisions.
Past votes can also be cited as expressions of one’s core political principles. In solidly blue Maryland, Franchot’s liberal voting record may help reassure progressive voters in his home base of Montgomery County just as his perceived fiscally responsibility helps him in places like Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Second, by criticizing Franchot in such a sharp, public manner, O’Malley confirmed the comptroller’s standing as the governor’s resident political foil.
If history is any guide, 2014 will be a change election cycle in Maryland. Franchot’s rebranding strategy has inoculated him from criticism that he is part of the pro-tax, pro-spend Annapolis crowd. By hitting the comptroller on his opposition to the politically noxious sales tax on gas plan, O’Malley has, in effect, helped bring that process to completion.
With the Maryland Republican Party not presently in a position to field viable candidates for statewide office, Franchot presently stands alone as The Alternative to all things Martin O’Malley. That may cause problems for him among some progressives, but my sense is that – under these particular circumstances – this strategy will ultimately win more friends than it loses.