The people who know Martin O’Malley best, the people of Maryland whom he led as governor for two terms, don’t see him as presidential material. Polls consistently show that Marylanders view his likely presidential run unfavorably. But O’Malley’s ego is large enough to be untroubled by his own state’s lack of confidence in him.
Marylanders also expressed their dismay at O’Malley’s national ambitions by rejecting his hand-picked successor as governor in favor of Republican Larry Hogan. “I can tell you my feelings were hurt,” said O’Malley after the defeat. “We had done a lot of really good things in Maryland and in the end, you did not hear much about it during the campaign.”
O’Malley, whose ambition has always outstripped his political talents, is implausibly convinced that Democrats who don’t know him at all will come to see him as more impressive than Democrats in his own state. Despite receiving supportive press from reporters eager to see a challenge to Hillary Clinton, O’Malley is still unknown to most national Democrats and largely unappealing to those who do know him.
His attacks so far on Hillary Clinton have been too ginger and indirect to make much of an impression on Democrats critical of her. He has said that Democrats want “new leadership” and that the presidency shouldn’t be treated as a “crown,” but he has stopped short of criticizing her aggressively. Even when egged on by the press to hit her, he has backed off. Asked in an ABC interview about her relationship to special interests, he responded, “I don’t know where she stands. Will she represent a break with the failed policies of the past? Well, I don’t know.”
Answers like that one aren’t likely to stir up much of a revolt. Complicating his opposition to Hillary Clinton is that he endorsed her loudly in the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama. She can dig up O’Malley’s old praise should he ever question her fitness to be president.
It is not clear how O’Malley could differentiate himself from Hillary. Some are suggesting he might emerge as an Elizabeth Warren substitute. He has taken to decrying “Wall Street bonuses” in an effort to imitate her. But progressives won’t find this impersonation convincing.
“There are some Democrats in Iowa who aren’t all that ‘Ready for Hillary.’ So far, there’s little evidence they’re ready for Martin O’Malley, either,” according to the Associated Press, which quoted one activist saying: “His name has not come up in visits I’ve had with my progressive people at all. I think people are just so interested in Bernie [Sanders] or Elizabeth.”
The truth is that Hillary’s record shows little to no ideological difference from O’Malley’s. They are both conventional liberal Democrats. O’Malley can possibly find a few issues to beat past her on the left but they won’t be very consequential.
O’Malley is also seen as too much of a lightweight to impersonate Warren. O’Malley tries to compensate for this perception by playing the policy wonk. He likes to say that the American people are hungry for “performance management” and “data-driven government.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank heard this jargony pitch recently and concluded that “Hillary Clinton has little to fear from Martin O’Malley.”
Nor is his attempt to play the soulful politician very persuasive. He has informed the press that he starts his day by immersing himself in spiritual readings. According to the Huffington Post, he reads what he calls the “good stuff”: “Among the Christian poets, theologians and authors whom O’Malley said he favors in his morning reading ritual are John O’Donohue, Ignatius of Loyola, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Karl Rahner and C.S. Lewis.”
Yet his moral views remain as thoughtlessly de-Christianized as ever. His much-advertised Catholic spirituality hasn’t stopped him from endorsing abortion, gay marriage, and violations of religious freedom. He recently told the press that his support for gay marriage stems from his Catholicism: “I’ve found that the passage of marriage equality actually squares with the most important social teachings of my faith, which is to believe in the dignity of every person and to believe in our own responsibility to advance the common good.” His morning spiritual readings apparently don’t include the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
O’Malley’s underwhelming steps toward a presidential campaign mark him out as less a serious threat to Hillary Clinton than a safe sparring partner with her. If by some chance an anti-Hillary candidate emerges, it won’t be him. Perhaps he can win a seat in her cabinet, but he is not going to win any significant states against her, starting with his own.