Caricature above by DonkeyHotey with Flickr Creative Commons License
By Barry Rascovar
What a surprise. . . . Martin O’Malley is running for president.
It’s now official but it hardly was a secret Maryland’s former governor and Baltimore’s former mayor would be spending the next nine months trooping around Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other key Democratic primary states.
At the moment, he’s a long longshot. Ireland’s largest bookmaker, Paddy Power, puts O’Malley’s chances at 25-to-1. (Let’s hope he plucked some four-leaf clovers when he visited the Old Sod recently.)
That’s better than the odds on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (33-to-1) or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (50-to-1), but they’re not O’Malley’s problem.
Mount Hillary is the former governor’s Mount Everest of a challenge. Hillary Clinton is given an even-money chance of winning the presidency by Paddy Power. (Her closest rival, according to the bookmaker, is Republican Jeb Bush. His odds are 7-to-2.)
The latest (May 28) Quinnipiac Poll shows Clinton with 57% of the Democratic primary vote. O’Malley is a whopping 56% points behind.
Sanders registered a respectable 15%, Vice President Joe Biden (who may not even become a candidate) had 9% of the Democratic vote, and O’Malley was tied at 1% with Webb and former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chaffee.
Clearly, Martin O’Malley has a huge, almost impossible, challenge in front of him.
But we’re talking politics, here, not statistical mathematics. Anything can happen. And sometimes does.
Remember 1976, when a little-known ex-Georgia governor surprised everyone and not only won the Democratic nomination but went on to defeat President Gerald Ford?
Jimmy Carter was such a no-name that when he campaigned in Annapolis in the summer of 1975, I wrote him off after listening to him deliver a mundane speech to a dozen or so retired officers at the Naval Reserve Club.
So much for my crystal-ball abilities.
And remember when a former Arkansas governor came from behind to defeat the likes of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas to win the Democratic presidential nomination?
Bill Clinton even lost the Maryland primary to Tsongas, 43-36 percent, but ran the table in southern primary states. He went on to defeat a sitting president, George Herbert Walker Bush.
In politics, miracles can happen.
It takes high-voltage energy, intestinal fortitude, the guts of a burglar, a solid record in government, a strong message and the determination to succeed no matter how bleak the situation.
O’Malley has all those attributes. He proved that when he ran for mayor of Baltimore in 1999 as a distinct underdog — the only white candidate in a minority-majority city. He shocked a lot of people by putting together a flawless campaign and winning fairly easily.
Then in 2006, O’Malley took on an incumbent governor, Republican Bob Ehrlich, and beat him convincingly.
But running a successful presidential campaign is in another, elite category — especially when you’re running against an overwhelming favorite whose husband remains the most popular politician in the nation and who would be the first woman to hold the country’s highest office.
Hillary Clinton’s name recognition is near-100 percent. O’Malley’s is near-zero outside of certain political circles.
Pluses and minuses
But O’Malley has the edge in actually running a large government bureaucracy, first in Baltimore and then in Annapolis. He has dealt with the tough urban issues and fiscal crises; he has crafted liberal legislative agendas and then negotiated his way to victory.
He is from a younger, more energetic generation than Hillary Clinton. He can even strum and sing his way to the presidency, if need be.
On the minus side, O’Malley will have trouble outliving has “zero tolerance” policing tactics he instituted in Baltimore as mayor. While mass arrests for petty crimes did, indeed, bring down the city’s crime rate, it embittered generations of blacks who took out their anger in a wave of civil unrest this April.
Zero tolerance is offensive to most liberal Democrats, and O’Malley may have trouble explaining his past support for that policing policy.
He also could have difficult explaining the dozens of taxes he imposed on Maryland citizens during his eight years as governor. By the time O’Malley left office, his unpopularity stemmed from his reputation as a relentless proponent of tax increases.
Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor last year by running successfully against O’Malley’s heavy-handed tax record. While this may not be a major detriment for O’Malley during the primaries, it could kill his chances of winning in a national general election.
At the moment, O’Malley’s candidacy seems hopeless. But what if Hillary Clinton has health problems (she’s already had one stroke)? What if the “get Hillary” media and right-wing frenzy persuades her to withdraw?
Or what if O’Malley’s solidly far-left agenda gains momentum in the early primaries among Democratic voters and he becomes the cover-boy favorite of the media and liberal interest groups?
It’s also likely that O’Malley has a back-up plan: Campaign like crazy throughout Iowa and New Hampshire, but if Clinton still buries him in an avalanche of votes, gracefully withdraw.
Then declare your abiding support for Hillary and fanatically campaign for Clinton around the country as a surrogate.
Under this backup plan, O’Malley would aim for presidential elections in 2020 or 2024. He’d still be a relatively youthful (for a president) 56 or 60.
At the moment, O’Malley isn’t held in high regard in his home state. It’s not even certain he could win the Maryland primary.
Both U.S. senators and most of the state’s Democratic establishment are gung-ho backers of Hillary Clinton. The Clinton family is beloved in the state’s African American communities — a pivotal component in any Democratic primary.
Yet we’re 11 months away from that election in Maryland. O’Malley has plenty of time to improve his position — and hope that the front-runner makes some fateful mistakes.
Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.