Getting the Old Band Back Together

There’s an interesting piece by John Wagner up at WaPo today about the foundation of Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign being a group of old friends who worked with the candidate on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign.

They’re grayer now and thicker around the middle, with real jobs, families and responsibilities. But they still cling to the idealism that led them to work for Gary Hart’s come-from-nowhere 1984 presidential campaign.

Some three decades later, more than a dozen Hart campaign veterans have latched onto another long-shot candidate. This time, it’s one of their own: Martin O’Malley, who joined Hart as a volunteer shortly before his 20th birthday and later ditched college for a semester to work for the Colorado Democrat’s campaign.

While it includes no real political heavyweights, the network is vital to O’Malley’s effort to topple Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is backed by much of the Democratic establishment and is expected to raise and spend vastly more money than other Democratic hopefuls.

The former Hart contingent offers financial support and expertise in foreign affairs and other areas. And, perhaps most important for O’Malley, the Hart alums are a living reminder that what seems impossible sometimes takes root.

That Hart campaign (the only serious one, since his 1988 effort became a shell of itself after the Donna Rice/Monkey Business scandal) occurred thirty-two years ago. But for a particular sub-generation of Democrats, it was what the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns of 1968 meant for their immediate precedessors, and what the Howard Dean campaign of 2004 meant for their successors. It was a long-shot crusade to overturn a party establishment.

But unlike those other insurgent campaigns, the Hart campaign was ideologically ambivalent. While most of the activists supporting him were cultural progressives, they were as likely as not to share a sense of disdain for the self-image of the Democratic Party as a group of interest and identity groups linking arms to protect the New Deal/Great Society legacy from the Reaganite horde taking over the GOP. They even had a sort of proto-ideology, associated pretty heavily with this magazine: neoliberalism (arguably a bad label since in Europe it was applied to the new breed of market-oriented conservatives led by Margaret Thatcher), though it was less an ideology than an attitude that progressivism had become temperamentally conservative and programmatically reactionary in the sense of having no forward momentum or vision for the future. Hart’s 1984 rival Fritz Mondale, who went on to lose 49 states against Reagan in the general election, was the epitome of the old-school “interest group liberalism” the neoliberals scorned. Unsurprisingly, the Hart campaign was one of several sources of inspiration and support for the next party reform effort, the New Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council. Indeed, two of the people mentioned in Wagner’s piece were prominent in DLC circles: Phil Noble, who chaired the South Carolina chapter of the group for years, and Doug Wilson, who was DLC political director for a good while.

I’m going through all this ancient history in no small part because of the irony involved in a group of Hart alumni getting the old band back together to take on Hillary Clinton, in one respect the heir of that tradition. Wagner’s piece doesn’t get into this, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to discover O’Malley and his bravos think of HRC much as they though of Mondale back in the day.

I have a personal connection to this saga, as it happens, beyond working with O’Malley and some of his old friends while at the DLC. I interviewed for a speechwriting gig with the Hart campaign in 1984, and though I didn’t get it, I was an intense supporter of the Coloradan that year, pained that my own state of Georgia saved Mondale’s bacon during the nominating process after the famous “Where’s the beef?” debate at the Fox Theater in Atlanta:

In any event, the Hart angle does cast some light on the impetus for O’Malley’s campaign, and probably answers the question some ask of why O’Malley doesn’t just endorse the better positioned Bernie Sanders. Even if they agree on a fair number of issues right now, they’re really emerging from quite different political legacies.

Beyond all that, it’s encouraging that the impact of a campaign–a losing one at that–can last so long. By this standard, the people who wore the orange hats for HoDean in 2004 have until about 2036 to stage their own reunion.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.