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C. Fraser Smith: Making the case for practical progressivism

Get ready for the “new normal.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley and his lieutenants are promising something noticeably different: smaller, leaner government — and here’s the kicker: in keeping with progressive priorities.

It’s hardly surprising. Maryland is not a budgetary nightmare like California, Illinois, New York and many other states. But its own fiscal reality could be just as bracing.

The problem for political leaders everywhere is that people seem to want less government and taxes — but the same services. So, leadership in these times could be seen as an exercise in making people think they can have it both ways.

Job One? Real change or the appearance of change. Maybe it’s actually coming.

“I hear rumblings of reorganization,” one O’Malleyite says. The liberal wing of the party will be the target — or feel like it is, he predicted.

“If progressive leaders want to focus on [progressive] priorities, they need to recognize the new normal: cutting has to be part of the trick bag. [Government] may have to throw some stuff overboard. And it has to be done in a way that’s visible outside State Circle,” he said.

Spin and bragging rights

Some such observable changes may be in the offing. People are increasingly resentful of government employees — for enjoying a layoff-free work world and for benefits that exceed what taxpayers are getting.

Of course, there is a political dimension for O’Malley. He may run again in Maryland. Or, he may wish to be seen as the kind of Democrat who can win national office in a world where having it both ways seems reasonable — or where people are willing to see smaller government even if it hurts them. Or where real change might hold some promise for the next generation.

The governor and his team are still parsing what one of them calls their “countercyclical” triumph last November.

O’Malley won a second term in a dismal year for Democrats. He won big — by 14 percentage points. Just how he won may matter much more — for the spin, of course, and for the bragging rights.

But more important, it matters for the way O’Malley chooses to operate in the new environment.

Was victory a product of staying the progressive course? In liberal-leaning Maryland, that’s plausible. While the rest of the Democratic world ran away from its record, O’Malley asked the voters to recognize a stewardship that maintained priorities.

Yes, he had raised the sales tax, but he had done it to save services that “working families” want and need from government.

‘Shared sacrifice’

He did not jump to promise no tax increases as various forces urged. After the election, he said there would be no increases this year — though the state’s $1.6 billion to $2 billion deficit may force some sort of revenue package next year. That, or downsizing the work force.

Others in the governor’s camp argue that campaign tactics must be credited with the big win. They undercut the anti-tax thrust of his opponent, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In a memorable spot run early in the campaign, men and women in the street said Ehrlich had, indeed, taxed them even if he called his revenue raisers fees.

The how-we-won debate matters because the conclusions will have a bearing on how much to emphasize priorities and how much to accommodate the new normal. In a sense, both considerations are driven by the hard fiscal facts. O’Malley has to find ways to reduce the deficit.

This reality lends itself to re-emphasizing the governor’s core management philosophy: day-to-day can lead to money-saving efficiency. But that won’t be enough to close the revenue gap. Thus the pressure for big changes.

In state capitols around the nation, leaders are calling for “shared sacrifice.” The professional cynics among us fear taxpayers will only get more resentful if they’re asked to make do with less.

Political leaders like O’Malley will have to make the case for practical progressivism.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.