Josh Kurtz: Philadelphia Freedom

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PHILADELPHIA – Greetings from Camp Bernie.

Yes, yes, Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee for president, and convention planners are understandably milking the historical nature of her candidacy. But you’d never know it from walking the streets, or roaming the Wells Fargo Arena, or hitting the policy, political and social events around town.

Each night, the convention hall turns a little more toward Hillary. But this is really Bernie Sanders’ convention – and Bernie Sanders’ year.

It’s more than a little reminiscent of the 1976 Republican National Convention, when Gerald Ford won the nomination but Ronald Reagan stole the hearts and minds of the delegates. Every time Reagan’s name was mentioned on the convention floor, the crowd went wild.

Most remarkable was the night Ford secured the nomination and then traveled to Reagan’s hotel room – a sitting president begging his vanquished rival for support. It should not be lost on Democrats that Ford lost the general election that year – or that Reagan was able to maintain the loyalty he built up in 1976 to sweep to the presidency in 1980.

Sanders is unlikely to run for president in 2020, much less be elected. But Democrats throughout the country should be worried about how to harness his forces and whether they run the risk of alienating many of them – maybe forever.

A cynic might suggest that Bernie Sanders’ people are so much more in evidence in Philadelphia than Clinton’s because Clinton’s are being whisked from air conditioned big money event to air conditioned big money event in air conditioned SUV’s, when the rest of us are sweating on the streets.

The cache of leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee this week didn’t just show that the DNC had its finger on the scale for Clinton throughout the presidential nomination fight; that was plainly obvious. More startling was how thoroughly the party relies on and kowtows to its big donors. The Democratic Party in the quarter century it has been dominated and defined by Bill and Hillary Clinton has become as much a party of Wall Street as the GOP.

Still, no one shed a tear when Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who doubled as DNC chairwoman, was forced to walk the plank. She had become a uniquely divisive figure within the Democratic Party, and was allowed to stay in her job only because of President Obama’s disinterest in party-building – a circumstance that has had its own unfortunate consequences.

It’s safe to assume that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is among those shedding no tears. O’Malley’s presidential campaign was undeniably impeded by the national party organization’s biases toward Clinton.

But if O’Malley is gloating, he’s doing so quietly. When I caught up with him at a breakfast of the Kentucky delegation to the convention, he mentioned “the enthusiasm of elected officials, insiders and the party establishment” for the Clintons, but not much else about Wasserman Schultz.

There are any number of explanations for O’Malley’s quick demise in the White House election. The DNC is one; so was the timing of Joe Biden’s deliberations about whether or not to get into the presidential race.

But it seems to me that O’Malley – like everyone else – underestimated Sanders’ strengths and his ability to build a big and passionate grass-roots network quickly. Surely if Sanders hadn’t been in the race, O’Malley would have become the viable alternative to Clinton. And he never found a way to neutralize Sanders – though nobody else did, either. Clinton was only able to – and barely, at that – because of her institutional strengths.

Asked to reflect about the Sanders phenomenon the other day, O’Malley said, “The overwhelming dynamic [during the campaign] was one of anger and fear, and when people fear their politicians aren’t on their side, the only thing left to do is to protest.”

So now O’Malley is back in the fold. He spoke to the convention for about five minutes last night, and is moving about the city speaking to several state delegations – including Iowa and New Hampshire – and at several other gatherings.

“I’ve campaigned with Hillary Clinton, I’ve campaigned against Hillary Clinton – I’m one of the few people who can say that,” O’Malley told the Kentucky delegation. “I can tell you that Hillary Clinton is one tough person for this tough time.”

O’Malley still has some cachet in national Democratic circles.

“There wasn’t a better governor in America,” former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear told his fellow Bluegrass State Democrats. “We’re going to hear a lot more from Martin O’Malley.”

And this he said after O’Malley had left the room.

But there is a conundrum for O’Malley – and for all ambitious Democrats of a certain generation who may have presidential aspirations. That list includes Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who you run into on every streetcorner in Philadelphia, along with younger potential future national candidates like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

They can move about the convention city and work to raise their national profile. But if Clinton wins, their ambitions must be put on ice for eight years.

It’s the dirty secret no one wants to talk about: The career paths of some Democrats would be a lot clearer if Donald Trump is elected in November.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter: @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.