Analysis: Hogan Aims to Stay Popular at Home, Relevant in National Politics

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (right), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and first lady Yumi Hogan outside the State House Wednesday during Hogan's inauguration ceremony. State photo

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) sketched out a vision for the future Wednesday – but it was more a vision for his own political future than a blueprint for how he plans to govern Maryland over the next four years.

With his frequent calls for bipartisanship and his none-too-subtle denunciations of political disorder in Washington, D.C., Hogan’s second-term inaugural address, delivered outside the State House under chilly gray skies, won widespread praise for its tenor and tone.

“It was a total home run,” said Michael S. Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and ex-Republican National Committee chairman, now working as a consultant and MSNBC commentator.

Racking up 77 percent job approval ratings in a recent poll, Hogan has found the Midas Touch at home when it comes to his governing style and political persona. And it’s plainly apparent that Hogan has a message he wants to deliver to fellow Republicans and a broader national audience. To further bring the point home — or into shore, as the case may be — he carried a purple surfboard into his inaugural ball at National Harbor Wednesday night.

Any doubt about Hogan’s national ambitions – whether he actually runs for higher office one day or not – should be erased by the fact that Mark Salter, the wordsmith and muse of the late U.S. Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), co-wrote his speech. That doesn’t happen every day.

With relentless discipline, Hogan has driven the narrative that he spent his first four years in office governing in a bipartisan fashion – and that he intends to keep doing the same. “It isn’t always easy to put the public good ahead of personal and partisan interests,” he said Wednesday.

Hogan suggested that Maryland, with its Republican chief executive and heavily Democratic legislature, sets a standard for cooperative governing that should be a model for Washington, D.C., and the rest of the nation.

“To those who say that our political system is too broken and can’t be fixed, I would argue that we have already shown a better path forward,” he said. “And if we can accomplish that here in Maryland, then there is no place in America where these very same principles cannot succeed.”

With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) seated a few feet away, Hogan invoked the spirit of Bush’s dad, the late President George H.W. Bush; McCain; and his own dad, the late congressman Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., who famously broke with his party to call for the impeachment of President Nixon.

“For those of us who have been given the privilege of serving, we could offer those men no greater tribute than to follow their example,” he said.

The bipartisanship Hogan peddles to a national audience and the reality of what exists in Annapolis are not completely in sync. While the toxicity that has ruined the national political discourse surely does not exist in the State House, Hogan’s projected image of the two sides sitting down and rolling up their sleeves to hammer out mutually beneficial compromises doesn’t happen very often.

What mainly occurred in Hogan’s first term is that he chose his battles with the legislature wisely, lost a few, backed off others when the numbers were clearly against him, and then made the best of it. When Democratic lawmakers were with him, he celebrated the fact. All that may pass for compromise and harmony in the context of today’s national politics, but it isn’t the purest version.

Hogan seems determined to follow the same formula in his second term, and maybe he can. His evident goal is to remain popular, so it just may work.

Hogan said almost nothing about Maryland’s future during his inaugural address. His choice of Jeb Bush and former Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett (D) as Inauguration Day speakers was rife with symbolism – a prominent anti-Trumper and a prominent Democrat – but were rooted in yesterday, not the future. He’s put out a modest legislative agenda so far, though his team promises more details when he releases his budget proposal on Friday and delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 30.

That absence of a bold agenda might once again be a function of Hogan bowing to political reality. Hogan, after all, in less august surroundings than the front of the historic State House on Inauguration Day, has described his first term as “playing goalie” against bad Democratic ideas. But even fans see a limit to that approach.

“Goal-keeping is important,” Anirban Basu, one of Hogan’s favorite economists, said last week at a conference sponsored by the free-market Maryland Public Policy Institute. “Effectively, though, what that does is maintain the status quo.”

That’s not what the governor who vows to “change Maryland” wants to hear.

The pause button

Hogan won his first term – and thrived – in part by being the antithesis of his predecessor, Martin J. O’Malley (D). Under O’Malley, the state adopted the DREAM Act and marriage equality, invested heavily in transportation and infrastructure, promoted renewable energy, abolished capital punishment, and instituted new gun control measures.

To Hogan, it added up to “43 consecutive tax increases” – and the voters largely agreed. At a minimum, their embrace of Hogan after the O’Malley years amounted to hitting the pause button in an effort to catch their breath.

There’s a broad and potent element of the electorate that’s still there. These are the William Donald Schaefer voters, the Bob Ehrlich voters, who are now the Hogan voters. Through his tenure, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) – who may or may not be a candidate for governor in 2022, when his friend Hogan is termed out – has made a play for these voters as well.

But Democrats in the legislature, emboldened by November’s election results – everywhere but in the gubernatorial race, that is – are ready to hit “play” again. There’s a new generation of lawmakers in Annapolis, a more progressive group, ready for action. And they’re ready to talk about the future even if their leaders aren’t.

In fact, they look like the future. Hogan, to them, is almost irrelevant. And even Franchot realizes that he’s got to look like a man of the future if he’s to have a political future. That’s why he’s invited state Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), state Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s), Salisbury Mayor Jacob R. Day — all younger than 40 years old — to speak at his swearing-in in Baltimore on Jan. 28, along with Baltimore County Board of Education Chair Kathleen S. Causey.

As Hogan and his advisers contemplate this new crop of legislators, they must surely know that the General Assembly’s moderating influences – including the presiding officers themselves, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) – are diminished. That can’t be a happy realization.

Take, for example, the issue of the proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage. Hogan is a skeptic; legislative leaders are quietly suggesting that the $15 figure could be phased in on different schedules for different industries and geographic regions. But progressive lawmakers and their allies in the labor movement and activist community have made a full cry for a “clean 15,” lessening the prospects for compromise.

Small wonder, then, that Hogan seems so focused on influencing the national political discourse rather than investing political capital on political fights at home. His bet is predicated on the idea that the “Trump fever” in the GOP will eventually break – if not in 2020, then surely in time for the 2024 White House election.

“Most of us,” Hogan said, “are sick and tired of all that drama.”

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