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He’s Handsome, He’s Progressive, He’s a Rocker...

And man, would Martin O’Malley make a lousy presidential candidate

Illustration by Tang Yau Hoong

It’s ludicrously early to be having this conversation, of course, but it’s time someone said something about Martin O’Malley. Already, Washington wisdom has congealed into a consensus on the likely Democratic presidential contenders for 2016, and the Maryland governor always makes the top five—along with Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, and Elizabeth Warren.

On the one hand, it’s understandable that National Journal plunked O’Malley’s tanned, symmetrical face on its cover in June, beneath the headline: "Is it time to take Martin O’Malley seriously?” After acquitting himself well as the mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley, who is 50, has for six years led his state capably enough to keep it at or near the top of all manner of national rankings. He has guided into law ambitious measures on marriage equality, gun control, immigration, and the death penalty, among others. He has balanced the books while keeping tuition increases at state colleges the lowest in the country. Plus, he plays Johnny Cash covers in an Irish rock band, which in the shorthand of campaign coverage is usually interpreted as evidence of personality. Still, let’s not get too carried away: O’Malley is an admirable governor with an admirable record, but there’s no way he’s cut out to be the Democratic nominee.

For all his gym-rat, pub-rock credentials, O’Malley is not a very charismatic politician. In his frequent appearances on national TV talk shows, he is an over-scrubbed, stolid presence, doling out partisan barbs in a drawl that seems intended to be Clintonesque but is conspicuously lacking in verve.

In speeches, this lack of dynamism becomes especially noticeable. O’Malley has been cursed with a monotone, and on stage, you can see him laboring gamely to defeat it, and failing. His most high-profile address to date, at the 2012 Democratic convention, was widely judged to be a flop. O’Malley opened with a rousing data point: “Greetings from Maryland, home of the number-one public school system in America for four years in a row!” Then, after an anecdote about the Revolutionary War, came a tedious call-and-response routine explaining how Barack Obama was going to take America “forward, not back.” As O’Malley cupped his hand to his ear, camp-counselor style, leaning ponderously on every syllable of the refrain, even he didn’t seem entirely excited by his own pitch. “He sometimes tries to be more theatrical, and that doesn’t serve him well,” says State Senator Allan Kittleman, a Republican who is favorable toward O’Malley. “When he gets on stage, he tries to be more than who he is.” (Afterward, O’Malley’s camp put it out that he had been asked to tone down his speech at the last minute, in order to avoid upstaging the competition.)

The issue, though, is not merely that O’Malley is a ho-hum speaker. Among political prognosticators, he is often referred to as the Howard Dean of 2016—the candidate with the best chance of galvanizing the party’s liberal base. In part, this expectation comes from his progressive roots. O’Malley was raised in an active Democratic family in the Washington suburbs and volunteered for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign while attending Catholic University. He married into a well-known political family in Baltimore, where he fashioned himself into a young urban reformer, battling crime and corruption. As Steve Kearney, a former O’Malley adviser, says: “That was about all he talked about when he was a city councilman—that it was not fair that we accept a level of chaos and violence and unhappiness in poor neighborhoods that we’d never accept in wealthier ones.”

The problem is that, as a national politician, O’Malley won’t, or perhaps can’t, articulate those values. His preferred mode is that of a bloodless consultant with a tin ear. After the Obamacare debate, he complained that his fellow Democrats “immediately run to the values of caring and fairness” instead of focusing on the economic case for reform. Arguing against tax cuts for the rich on “Charlie Rose,” he said: “I don’t look at it as fairness. I look at it as doing the things that work.” In Maryland, he sold both marriage equality and immigration reform on the logic that they would make the state more business-friendly. Indeed, on nearly every high-profile issue, he was following the agenda of the increasingly liberal state legislature rather than leading it.

When attempting to explain a deeper rationale for his policies, O’Malley tends to offer long lists of metrics, or anodyne pronouncements like, “It’s not about whether we move left or right; it’s about whether we move forward or back.” He has a penchant for quoting, approvingly and at length, the bromides of Tom Friedman. It’s hard to see Democratic primary voters getting fired up about a candidate whose vision for the nation is of an “opportunity-expanding entity.” “Liberal activists want to see a little passion, a little sweat on the brow, but that’s not him,” one veteran Maryland Democratic strategist told me.

O’Malley’s advisers say he speaks the language of utilitarianism because that’s who he is—a manager who cares about results. As mayor, he imported New York’s data-heavy approach to crime fighting and expanded it to a swath of city services (“CitiStat”), which in turn led to “StateStat” when he arrived in Annapolis in 2007. It’s rare to see him out and about without a thick briefing binder, and the only time he looks happier than when going over StateStat is when he gets to ramp up the command center for an impending storm. His boosters compare him to good-government champions like Michael Dukakis and Al Gore (which sounds like a backhanded kind of compliment for a politician with national aspirations, but they believe there’s more appetite for wonky pragmatists these days). And while Maryland’s current prosperity owes a great deal to its proximity to the booming Beltway, O’Malley certainly deserves credit for the slow but steady turnaround in Baltimore, which gained residents last year for the first time in 60 years.

But competence alone does not a national campaign make. As Tom Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, political scientist, observes, “It’s hard to say, I’m just gonna manage the shit out of this.” O’Malley has a technocratic soul paired with one of the most progressive records of any governor in the country—and so far, he has shown little ability to reconcile those two things. This lack of a coherent political identity has not hindered him in Maryland, where the Republican caucus is so weak that he has barely needed to engage them. But there are big arguments still to be had in Washington, and O’Malley shows little sign that he has laid the intellectual groundwork to lead his party’s side of them.

If Clinton decides to run, O’Malley’s team has made it plain that he’s unlikely to challenge her—and perhaps this wouldn’t be a bad thing. For any successful presidential candidacy, there is a basic list of requirements, and O’Malley checks almost none of the necessary boxes. He may be better suited to a prominent role in a Clinton administration, one in which he could carry a large binder and work the numbers without having to generate the ideas that go with them.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.

  1. Alec MacGillis discussed this piece on WYPR radio on July 2. Listen here