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C. Fraser Smith: Democrats fail at show and tell

And another thing about the recent election:

The anti-government zealots got off scot-free.

No one challenged their premise: Government is the enemy.

Actually, government saved us.

A strong case could have been made in Maryland that government worked well under the extreme circa 2008 pressure. Remember the Great Recession? Remember sequestration and its hobbling impact on hiring?

Why didn’t we hear this argument?

I am told that saving the state from much deeper financial losses didn’t poll well. Utter copout. The candidate and his team are charged with making the important issues salient, compelling and clear. That’s their job.

But in Maryland, and I suspect elsewhere, government and the Democratic administration’s record were abandoned. Attack ads took the place of argument.

The basic purpose of a campaign in our system was thrown under the bus.

Yes, it’s all about whether you win or lose. It’s also about showing people why you deserve to win. You have to stand by the decisions you made — why you did what you did when you had the power.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s stewardship in a time of duress had no defenders — only attackers — during the campaign. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown was virtually silent as Gov.-elect Larry Hogan trashed him and the Democratic-led General Assembly. There was no vigorous pushback.

Brown was not alone. Democrats have turned ducking into an art form. (See Obamacare.) They sought to defend their values in Maryland when the sky was falling. They succeeded to a great extent. They backed and filled and shifted — and, yes, borrowed.

Then they went into a crouch when Hogan and the Republicans jumped.

Democrats didn’t try to defend their work. Hogan had a clear plan, worked his plan and gave no quarter. You knew where he stood. He made himself a vessel for the financial and political frustrations of Maryland and beyond. He was in tune with the electorate.

This important, confrontational part of the system did work. It’s altogether fair to pick what you think is a productive point of attack. It’s the other side’s job to prove you wrong.

Hogan and others criticized Democrats for borrowing too much and for raiding various cookie jars, notably the Transportation Trust Fund.

I say the assembly and the governor showed great flexibility and resourcefulness. Many more Marylanders might have been laid off, more houses lost to foreclosure. The Thornton Commission education reforms could have been cut back. Taxes could have been raised even more.

Did I mention that the Great Recession was a painfully threatening interlude? You remember the 7, 8 and 9 percent unemployment rate? People were losing jobs and houses.

These catastrophic events were not allowed to fully decimate the population. Government did not collapse. Policymakers were engaged and thoughtful. They chose the best bad decisions. It’s called governing.

But the campaign we got on television was what a Time magazine columnist called “a lack of creative integrity and a palpable disrespect for the audience.” Negative ads in Maryland gave a then largely unknown Hogan lots of screen time. Ads against him offered the laughable assertion that his election would, essentially, put AK-47s in playgrounds.

I know this view would have been a tough sell in this campaign. People are furious about tax increases — even as wages stagnate, good old jobs fade and the middle class shrinks.

But did the Democrats make the wealth gap an issue? And what about the region’s lost resilience as Congress allowed sequestration of federal funds and permanent government job cuts?

Fundamental change in the state’s economy went virtually unaddressed. Campaigns are among the places where these questions have to be raised. A campaign is a classroom. But you have to have teachers — a.k.a. candidates. Even, I would argue, if the campaign managers say they don’t appear to have much of an upside.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. says now that his party focused during the down years on maintaining high quality public education, health care and public safety. That’s what Maryland expected, he said.

Was it enough? Maybe not, but it’s really hard to say for sure since the case was so poorly made.

The estimable Mr. Miller is more resolute now.

“We’re not going backward.”

Late, but better than never.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.