The race for the White House shifted into high gear this week in Charlotte, N.C. No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign; I’m talking about Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential quest.
In fact, O’Malley is running harder at Obama’s nomination convention than Obama. Just look at the Maryland governor’s itinerary: multiple TV talk shows; speeches to a half-dozen state delegations including all-important Iowa, Ohio and Nevada; a closed-door session with AIPAC (Israel’s lobby group); performing with his band, O’Malley’s March; and the crown jewel, a 15-minute prime time TV speech showcasing himself to 20 million viewers.
Depending on your politics, O’Malley’s speech was either compelling or childish. The highlight was O’Malley and the audience chanting together: President Obama is moving America “forward, not back.”
The Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, David Zurawik, wasn’t impressed, “It was not a very good TV speech and I suspect it played poorly in many living rooms around the country.”
“It was too big and felt far too artificial and gimmicky for the intimacy of TV … The biggest mistake was trying to engage the audience in a call and answer chant/cheer … Worst of all, it made O’Malley seem more like a cheerleader than the leader of the Democratic governors and a top contender for president in 2016.”
But that’s precisely O’Malley’s problem: He’s allowed himself to become a contradiction. On the one hand, he’s trying to display the charisma and gravitas of a world leader, while, on the other hand, he’s signed on as Barack Obama’s pit bull mauling Republican governors and Mitt Romney on command.
O’Malley can’t have it both ways. He can’t spend months delivering political low blows and picking mud fights with Chris Christie and Bob McDonald and then offer himself as lofty, admirable presidential timber.
Smart politicians don’t allow themselves to become political henchmen hiring out to do other politician’s dirty work. Do you see Andrew Cuomo thugging for Obama? Or Hillary? True, Joe Biden is doing it but, as I said, smart politicians don’t.
Dick Nixon understood this back in 1968 when he recruited another Maryland governor, Spiro Agnew, to be his running mate in charge of attacking Democrats, liberals and the media (whom Agnew dubbed “nattering nabobs of negativism”). Agnew, like O’Malley, gained lots of quick publicity, but it wasn’t presidential.
In O’Malley’s defense, he’s won in Maryland by punching below the belt, so why won’t that work on the national stage? Because, Martin, you won in a tiny, liberal state with a 2-1 Democratic voter advantage and a lap-dog media.
You won your 2010 re-election because, thanks to federal spending, Maryland’s economy wasn’t in crisis, because Obama’s 2009 stimulus money rescued your budget and because your opponent, Bob Ehrlich, didn’t have the wherewithal to rebut your avalanche of personal attack ads.
Going coast to coast is a different ballgame, as you just discovered with your “no, we’re not better off” flub and by the new scrutiny of your Maryland resume. And national elections, unlike in Maryland, are a two-party affair where the general election is more than an afterthought.
You may have dazzled Maryland Democrats with your “number one schools,” tuition freeze and fake budget cuts, but, in the end, your real legacy is gay marriage, gambling expansion, gerrymandering and the state’s biggest tax hike in history. How’s that going to play in Peoria?
But O’Malley is a smart guy who knows all this, so why the quixotic White House bid so obscenely premature? Why sign onto the low-road pit bull role as the Democratic Agnew?
Because O’Malley’s biggest problem is the clock. When Maryland’s next governor is inaugurated in January 2015, O’Malley will be unemployed. He’s sucking up to Obama, praying he’ll become secretary of Homeland Security or some other high-profile appointment.
O’Malley’s other option is the oft-rumored “handoff” with U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Sometime in 2013, Mikulski either retires or accepts a cushy Obama appointment, and O’Malley appoints himself to finish Mikulski’s’ term, which ends in 2016.
It’s a neat plan: O’Malley stays in the public eye and on the public payroll, his sidekick, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, gets a head start on rival Doug Gansler by ascending to the governor’s office, and the U.S. Senate seat stays in Baltimore and away from Montgomery’s Chris Van Hollen.
Deep in his heart, O’Malley knows he’s not going to be president, so he’s “all in” with Obama’s re-election campaign whose theme is something like this: “Forward (please don’t look back at the last four years), OK, I’m bad but Romney is even worse because he’s a millionaire who hates minorities, women, the middle class, widows and puppy dogs (and, psst, he’s a Mormon, pass it on), I killed Bin Laden, George Bush and Herbert Hoover are to blame for everything, let’s soak the rich (it won’t solve our economic woes, but it will sure make you feel better just like the French peasants felt better watching the nobles’ heads roll off the guillotine), let’s spend more and let our kids worry about the debt, and did I mention that I killed Bin Laden?”
Frankly, if Obama can sell that message while convincing Americans that they’re better off than four years ago, he deserves re-election. But have you noticed how rarely you hear the traditional incumbent’s chant of “four more years” at Obama rallies?
Maryland’s Court of Appeals recently classified pit bulls as “inherently dangerous,” which may also best describe Martin O’Malley’s precarious political future.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.