It wasn’t exactly an Oscar-winning performance by our governor.
But at least Martin O’Malley’s speech before the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, N.C., was a huge improvement from his overwrought, shout-out address to the same group eight years ago.
O’Malley still hasn’t figured out how to transfer his magic as a perpetual campaigner to big-time speechmaking.
He’ll have to learn from this missed moment in the spotlight if he hopes to be a serious contender for president in 2016.
His trite opening — “Greetings from Maryland; home to the No. 1 public schools in America for four years in a row!” while a bow to convention rituals, lacked any hint of presidential timber.
His early and overly long references to an obscure moment in the Revolutionary War — the covering fire provided by the doomed 400-man Maryland Line during Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. — was a puzzler, even for those in the Maryland delegation.
His hokey audience-participation refrain, “Forward, not back,” revved up the delegates but on TV came across as a tired, political crowd-pleasing shtick.
His references to his family’s immigrant background proved a bit thin.
Only as he neared the peroration of his speech did O’Malley click, especially with his pointed questions aimed at Republican nominee Mitt Romney and the GOP’s focus on dramatic cuts in government spending:
“How much less do you really think would be good for our country?
“How much less education would be good for our children?
“How many hungry American kids can we no longer afford to feed?
“Governor Romney, how many fewer college degrees would make us more competitive as a nation?”
But then O’Malley turned back to his weak reed of being from a family of immigrants. His concluding lines lacked originality as well as pizzazz.
Critics pounced on the Maryland governor’s inability to look and sound like a future national contender.
David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun’s respected media critic, couldn’t hide his disappointment. The governor’s “gestures and expressions and movements” were “too big” and “felt far too artificial and gimmicky for the intimacy of TV.”
Large parts of the speech seemed staged “and more like something suited to a high school rally.” O’Malley may have the “substance and smarts and all the tools to be great on TV,” the newspaper critic lamented, “but that isn’t what came through.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza mentioned O’Malley in his “Winner and Losers” column in the latter category.
Though great things were expected, “those expectations turned out to be too high.”
The governor’s “enthusiasm and passion came across as manufactured not organic.” Instead of loving O’Malley, the convention crowd “wound up just sort of liking him.”
That’s not good enough to get you into the presidential arena.
Two other factors worked against O’Malley on Tuesday night.
Convention schedulers denied him precious national “face time” by handing O’Malley a 10-minute speaking window that began five minutes before the TV networks started their evening’s coverage. Most of America missed the Maryland governor’s performance. He needed that exposure.
Also working against him: the night’s other speakers upstaged O’Malley — Michelle Obama, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro put on exceptional performances. The Post’s Cillizza described the mayor’s keynote address as a “winner” that makes Castro a “national rising star.” Patrick won high praise, too.
What a missed opportunity for O’Malley.
The good news is that while he flubbed the chance to impress a national TV audience, Maryland’s governor continues to engage in whirlwind campaigning for Barack Obama.
He’s one of the most in-demand Democratic Party attack dogs. At the convention, he didn’t miss many key state caucuses and the chance to deliver a rousing pep talk.
He’s getting plenty of invitations to address state party dinners and events around the country as chair of the Democratic Governors Association. His hobnobbing at the convention will open more doors for him in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, he is still a favorite Obama surrogate on the Sunday TV political talk shows. He memorizes his lines well, is quick on his feet, is a polished performer, stays on message — and he can get to their Washington TV studios in a flash.
All this helps his future ambitions.
The guessing game in Annapolis is how many days O’Malley will actually spend in his State House office between now and the Nov. 6 election.
The consensus: not many.
For most of that time, Maryland government will be on automatic pilot with the governor’s staff making sure the cupola doesn’t blow off the State House dome.
It’s a good time of the year for O’Malley to take an unofficial leave of absence. His underlings can start the ball rolling on early budget decisions for next year — the difficult budgeting choices come in November and December, when he’ll be back full time.
Meanwhile, O’Malley can focus on getting his presidential candidate elected — and then hopefully being near the front of the line when it’s time for the next president to hand out rewards.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.