Josh Kurtz: A Man in Full (Almost)

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By Josh Kurtz: 

A glorious week with no news -- far enough away from civilization that the technology wouldn’t allow news consumption even if I wanted it to -- and upon plugging back in I discover that Martin O’Malley has all but declared his candidacy for president.

I first hear of this from my friend Steven, an e-book publisher in Florida but an old political hand whose resume includes Dukakis for President 1988 and Jerry Brown for President 1992 -- not to mention an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor of New Mexico. 

Steven’s email comes with a simple subject line -- ? -- and a link to a Time magazine interview with O’Malley from the National Governors Association conference in Milwaukee, in which our governor outlines his rationale for a White House bid -- and says he’s closing in on a decision to run.

“By the end of this year I think we’re on course to have a body of work that lays the framework for a candidacy in 2016,” he says.

I interpret the question mark in Steven’s email as an entreaty to explain -- explain why a guy he’s barely heard of thinks he’s qualified to lead the free world. So, Steven and readers, let me try.

Like it or not, O’Malley -- as he himself noted in his latest round of interviews with national media -- has a record of accomplishment. It is not without its blemishes -- the Baltimore city jail scandal will bite, and Maryland, it seems, will soon have a casino on every corner -- but it’s the kind of record that will appeal to progressive voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

In times of fiscal austerity in Washington and in many state capitals, Maryland has spent liberally on education and is preparing to do so on transportation and infrastructure.

During O’Malley’s tenure, Maryland has passed gay marriage and the DREAM Act -- both ratified by voters -- eliminated capital punishment and enacted new gun control laws. He’s pushed measures to encourage the use of renewable fuels and fight climate change. His administration is implementing Obamacare in smart and innovative ways.

All of this liberal policy has been delivered with a dollop of accountability -- the State Stat program designed to measure progress of various government initiatives. O’Malley also has his crime-fighting tenure as mayor of Baltimore to boast about -- few presidential candidates are as closely identified with urban politics as O’Malley -- and that’s also an asset in Democratic primaries.

It’s a record, by design or not, that will excite core Democratic constituencies. But it’s also a record of substance. That won’t blunt critics or oppo researchers, but substance rarely hurts.

And it’ll be delivered in an appealing package: the handsome, articulate rock star, thoughtful and politically savvy.

Ignore for now the national and state polls for 2016 that show O’Malley as an asterisk. He has plenty of time to convey his message to the right party activists and opinion makers. 

Some of the biggest exposure he’s received this summer -- a long National Journal cover piece exploring his record and potential appeal and a less flattering treatment in The New Republic -- has been a mixed blessing. But O’Malley is largely at the “just include me on the list of potential candidates and spell my name correctly” stage of his campaign right now.

Of course, the big question is what the Democratic field will look like. It goes without saying that if Hillary Clinton runs, she will be the prohibitive favorite.

But as 2008 proved, Hillary Clinton is not impenetrable. Some Democrat will emerge as the “anti-Hillary” -- the media will demand it. But that isn’t likely to be O’Malley. He’s too tied into the Clinton network and the Democratic establishment to be throwing rocks at the party’s supreme power couple.

The anti-Hillary role may well be played by Howard Dean, who seems determined to run for president again. Although liberal Democrats owe Dean a debt of gratitude for helping them rediscover their voices after months of being cowed by Republican jingoism post 9-11 and for pioneering critical new campaign technology and tactics, chances are his candidacy isn’t going to go any further in 2016 than it did in 2004.

Will Joe Biden run? When was a sitting vice president last denied his party’s presidential nomination? 1952? Biden has two problems if he tries again: his age -- 73 in 2016 -- and his propensity for verbal gaffes. Do Democrats, after Barack Obama, want an old white guy, however talented a politician, however popular he is with party activists?

After the two titans -- Clinton and Biden -- and the known quantity (Dean), the list of potential contenders gets harder to size up. It includes a former governor (Brian Schweitzer) and a current governor (Andrew Cuomo). One has folksy, red state appeal, the other a famous name, sparkling oratory, and access to lots and lots of New York money. Both have substantive records, too -- which they won’t hesitate to put up against O’Malley’s.

And if Clinton doesn’t run, a trio of appealing women Democratic senators will surely consider the race: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (some liberal activists will no doubt try to encourage Warren to position herself as the anti-Hillary even if Clinton runs). 

Others are eyeing the race, including Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who has been frustrated in the Senate but had a very productive four years as the commonwealth’s governor.

It’s an impressive field of potential candidates at the outset -- one of many reasons why O’Malley’s potential bid seems like a long-shot proposition at the moment. But Democrats like scrappy underdogs and nomination fights without pre-ordained winners. Anyone who claims to know how 2016 will turn out is being very, very presumptuous.

Here in Maryland, many political insiders tend to take a cynical view about O’Malley’s White House ambitions and prospects -- or roll their eyes. They shouldn’t.

Perhaps we know him too well or we cringe as we see him preparing for a presidential nominating process that makes the best of candidates seem craven and small. But other than Clinton and Biden, O’Malley, love him or hate him, is every bit as qualified to run for president as any other Democratic politician. 

Rare is the presidential contender these days who runs with a realistic expectation of winning. They’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. And inevitably, they raise their profiles -- and the profiles of their states, particularly if they‘ve been governor.

So if Martin O’Malley runs for president, Marylanders should, in the immortal words of Marion Barry, “get over it” -- and enjoy the ride.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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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.