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Laslo Boyd: Can we carry lessons from ’13 into ’14?

Is there any reasonable expectation that 2014 will be a better year than 2013? George Santayana’s line that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it is the first response that comes to mind.

In 2013, our political divisions seemed more entrenched and intractable than ever. It was the year of the least productive Congress in history and, no surprise here, the lowest-ever public opinions rankings for Congress. A small but determined group of House Republicans with a few Senate allies overwhelmed their so-called leadership and managed to shut government down.

That would have been the story that dominated the 2013 news and carried over into 2014 if the Obama administration hadn’t so visibly bungled the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. While the website seems to be working much better now and individuals are actually signing up, voters’ recall of that bit of 2013 history is likely to be the key to the 2014 congressional elections.

In a larger vein, we’ll see this coming year if there is anything left of the Obama presidency. Democrats would like to see progress on immigration, gun regulations and the huge inequality gap in this country. It’s hard to identify a partner on the other side of the aisle for any of those initiatives. The president has faced what may well be unprecedented levels of obstructionism, but his lack of political engagement has also undercut his efforts.

Doubling down

The determination of the political opposition has definitely been intensified by the many changes that are unfolding in this country. Marriage equality really is on the right side of history, despite the lack of progress in many of the red states. New Jersey has already raised the minimum wage, and that issue is on the agenda in numerous other states, including Maryland.

The demographic tide that is sweeping the nation will, in a few election cycles, change the dynamics of politics in many of the most-entrenched states. That’s exactly why you are seeing such shameful efforts to create obstacles to voting in so many places.

Whether money will trump democracy and demographics may be the most important challenge facing our constitutional system since its inception. Everything that critics of Citizens United v. FEC warned about has come to pass. Elections have become financial arms races with both sides raising staggering amounts of campaign funds. What that means, however, is that any interest or group unable to spend big dollars is ignored when major policy issues are considered.

Meanwhile, in the heartland of American capitalism, New York City, a self-described progressive who highlighted inequality in his campaign for mayor may provide a test case for an alternative approach to politics. Whether Bill DiBlasio is successful and whether his efforts resonate beyond the five boroughs will be a matter of great interest this year and beyond.

Old Line, new era

In Maryland, it’s election year again. The 2013 startup was uninspiring as each of the two leading gubernatorial candidates raised more questions than assurances about their fitness for office.

Will the strong backing of the Democratic Party establishment ensure Anthony Brown an easy path to the nomination? Alternatively, has his stumbling performance as the point person on health care raised doubts in the minds of those office holders who rushed to endorse him without giving it much thought?

We’ll get some feedback on the state of the horse race later this month when the next round of campaign finance reports becomes public.

Another perspective on the race for governor comes from looking back a bit further in history. The last time Democrats cleared the field to ensure that the preferred candidate would get the nomination, in 2002, it didn’t work out all that well in the general election. There probably isn’t a Republican candidate strong enough to take advantage of a vulnerable Democratic nominee this year, but it is a risk when an individual isn’t tested and doesn’t have to earn the nomination.

There will be, as has been widely reported, a significant turnover in the membership of the Maryland General Assembly. Between retirements, incumbents running for different offices and challenges from outsiders, the 2015 legislature will look a lot different from the one that opened the session this week. The major caveat to that statement, of course, is that the presiding officers, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch, will most certainly be back.

Contested counties

Local races are quite another matter. In Central Maryland, a Republican primary fight in Anne Arundel County and a general election contest in Howard County will get most of the attention. In the three most populous counties, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s, incumbents are all running for re-election and all, including Montgomery’s Ike Leggett, are strong favorites.

As a side note, none of those three has endorsed a candidate in the Democratic contest for governor. If the election seems one-sided, all three could either stay out or jump on the winner’s bandwagon. However, if the race seems close as we approach the June primary, any one of these three could swing the election outcome by a late and timely endorsement.

As dreary a political year as 2013 was, the only chance for 2014 to be better is if, as Santayana urged, we learn some lessons from the experience.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His experience in public policy includes government, higher education and consulting. His email address is lvboyd@gmail.com.