Josh Kurtz: O’Malley’s Opening

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By Josh Kurtz

As he launches his campaign for the White House this week, former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) brings undeniable attributes to the table: his record as governor and as mayor of Baltimore; his intellect and policy chops; his youth and vigor; and his rock star persona.

But all these may be of little import. Politics is situational, and O’Malley could be the beneficiary of two very big train wrecks in national Democratic politics.

We don’t yet know the potential for O’Malley’s candidacy – or whether he’s even crossed the threshold of credibility with the national media, who have altogether too much say in the process, or with voters in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And we certainly don’t know if he’s got the campaign apparatus in place to go the distance, though early indications are fairly promising. He has supplemented his hometown political network with some very talented national operatives.

What we do know is that O’Malley is facing an incredibly weak field for the Democratic nomination – and yes, we’re including Hillary Rodham Clinton in that calculation.

Train Wreck #1: It’s obvious why Clinton is the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination at this point. She has universal name recognition; a wide-ranging network of supporters, built over a quarter century in national politics; access to obscene amounts of campaign cash; vast and varied experiences in government and politics; and the potential to make history. She certainly has the capacity to be a very good president – more so than just about anyone running in either party.

But let’s face it: The early stages of her campaign have been painful to watch – and anybody who thinks it’s going to get better hasn’t been paying attention for the last two decades.

Which is worse, watching Hillary, with her regal bearing, all the trappings of power, and her sense of entitlement, pretending to be “just folks” and projecting well-studied empathy for the problems of the everyday people she’s now required to reach out to? Or is it the daily drip-drip-drip of damaging information about the Clinton Foundation’s finances, about deleted emails and secret web servers, about the Clinton’s rollicking band of courtiers and hangers-on and self-important advisers, each awaiting the restoration and their next big payday?

Has Hillary Clinton laid out a rationale for her candidacy? And are the American people really ready for a campaign where the media blow every Clinton blemish out of proportion, over-react to every public Clinton musing, and wait in breathless anticipation for the next inevitable Bill Clinton bimbo eruption?

Even if Americans have some gauzy nostalgia for the relative prosperity of the later Bill Clinton years, can we please, please move on from the narcissistic Clintons? Don’t Americans want someone younger, fresher, more forward-thinking? How is it that the young, appealing power couple who traveled around the country to the accompaniment of “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” in 1992 has become a modern-day “Picture of Dorian Gray,” hoping the American voters decide to sing “Yesterday”?

The “vast right-wing conspiracy” is going to attack and attempt to destroy any Democratic nominee, any Democratic president. But the vitriol is going to be elevated to unfathomable heights if Hillary Clinton is the nominee and becomes president. Remember, folks, we sign on to this circus, this nightmare soap opera, for at least five more years – and maybe nine more – if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016.

The appeal of a woman president is undeniable. But there are plenty of promising Democratic women in the pipeline – senators like Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar and, yes, Elizabeth Warren, young members of Congress like Tulsi Gabbard and Tammy Duckworth, state officials like California Attorney General Kamala Harris, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, and Illinois AG Lisa Madigan. None carries a whiff of the sleaze, the Boomer self-involvement, the drama that the Clintons do. It will be worth the wait.

Which doesn’t mean we should count the Clintons out. They are the ultimate political survivors. They will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, and they’re so used to dealing with political shitstorms that it’s second nature to them.

Still, the very thought of the Clintons remaining on center stage for the foreseeable future is exhausting, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Hillary Clinton campaign collapsing under the weight of its own themelessness, infighting and unavoidable sideshows – and it’s easy to imagine voters finally throwing up their hands and shouting, “Enough!”

Train Wreck #2: Democrats have a problem. While they rightly celebrate the fact that they have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, have demographic advantages in national races, and are approaching an Electoral College lock, they have been wiped out in four of the last six midterm elections, dating back to the Republican revolution of 1994 (1998 was a fluke – Democrats picked up five House seats and broke even in the Senate due to Republican overreach during the Clinton impeachment proceedings).

This has been bad for Democrats at all levels of government. The Democrats are currently at their lowest number of members in the House of Representatives since Herbert Hoover was president. They have lost 14 U.S. Senate seats since 2009. They have just 18 governors at the moment, and they have lost several legislative chambers – some, probably, forever.

But in a twisted way, this has been good news for Martin O’Malley, even though he held leadership positions in the Democratic Governors Association for the last few election cycles. Poor midterm showings have decimated the Democratic farm team; Democrats who might have been in the mix for the 2016 presidential nomination have been voted out of office, or lost attempts to move up, or have seen their stature greatly diminished.

Republicans now control governorships in critical Midwestern states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Democrats who might have been 2016 presidential contenders, like former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, and former Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, lost their seats in midterm elections.

Democrats in 2010 had promising candidates for Illinois and Pennsylvania Senate seats and for governor of Florida who might have become presidential candidates in 2016. But they could not overcome the Republican wave that year. People who were once thought to be White House prospects, like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, held on by the skin of their teeth last year, and are too damaged to make presidential bids right now.

So instead, O’Malley jostles for the mantle of Clinton alternative with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. Talk about the luck of the Irish! Between the weak Democratic field and Clinton’s combustible campaign, O’Malley’s own strengths and weaknesses are almost immaterial.

Voters ultimately may not buy whatever O’Malley is selling. But when we consider the current political state of play – as improbable as it sounds, O’Malley may be a lot closer to becoming the Democratic nominee than we think.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. 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.