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Will Democrats Ever Care About Martin O’Malley?

He's already testing the waters for 2020—and being mocked for it. But the political landscape might look much different after three years of Trump.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Martin O’Malley is back already—and being overshadowed again. On Wednesday, Politico broke the news that his leadership PAC commissioned a poll in Iowa to gauge his chances in a run for the White House in 2020. The survey showed O’Malley, a very distant third in last year’s Democratic primary, leading a field of potential candidates at 18 percent. “Gov. O’Malley spent a lot of time in Iowa during the campaign and made a very favorable impression on Iowa Democrats,” Dave Hamrick, O’Malley’s 2016 campaign manager, told Politico. “We wanted to see if the conversations he started with Iowans resonated and are glad to learn that they did.”

But that polling is less impressive in context. Despite spending an enormous amount of time in the first-in-the-nation caucus state while running for president, he’s only a point ahead of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. The Philly Voice considered Booker’s showing to be the real news here: “2020 poll shows promise for potential Cory Booker presidential run.”

The poll also didn’t include potential populist contenders like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders, whose progressive political revolution captivated the left during the 2016 campaign.

Such snark is to be expected. Despite an impressive progressive record as Maryland’s governor, O’Malley’s presidential campaign generated no enthusiasm. In the most memorable of election cycles, he was a forgettable footnote, the odd man out in the battle between Hillary Clinton and Sanders. He dropped out after earning less than one percent in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, a result that many saw coming from the moment he entered the race.

“In another campaign year,” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman wrote on the day he announced his campaign, “Martin O’Malley’s résumé and good looks might be irresistible to Democratic primary voters. He is a former big-city mayor whose story of renewal in Baltimore seemed well tailored to an increasingly urban and minority party. He is a former two-term governor of Maryland—and the lead singer and guitarist in a rock ’n’ roll band. But Mr. O’Malley is running in an election cycle in which Democratic elected officials and donors have overwhelmingly focused attention on Hillary Rodham Clinton. And he already faces competition from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the support of liberals who dislike Mrs. Clinton or merely want to see her pushed further to the left.”

2020, of course, will be another campaign year. And as implausible as an O’Malley presidency looks today, the lesson of President Donald Trump is that nearly anything can happen in politics, under the right circumstances. The Democratic landscape right now suggests there will be no presumptive frontrunner in four years. A second run by O’Malley would test whether his poor showing in 2016 was due to terrible timing or weak appeal (or both). Assuming Trump’s right-wing reign of ignorance and incompetence continues, voters may be ready for another smart, liberal technocrat—a leader the Washington Monthly in 2013 called “arguably the best manager working in government.” Or maybe it’s a more familiar story: an ambitious politician with plenty to recommend him who nevertheless can’t break through on the national level.

Bill Clinton once thought O’Malley might “go all the way.” He wrote as much in 2002, the same year that Esquire called O’Malley “America’s best young mayor.” Ahead of—and even during—the 2016 campaign, progressive writers made this case for him, too. After the third primary debate, Rebecca Leber wrote in the New Republic, “O’Malley didn’t look presidential. Yet there’s good reason to take him seriously, despite his awkward night.” She noted that he was often “the first candidate to stake out detailed, even wonky, progressive positions”—on climate change, immigration reform, and healthcarethat were later adopted by Clinton and Sanders. At Vox, Matt Yglesias gushed over O’Malley’s gubernatorial record and even argued he “seems the most solid, reflecting a more consistently liberal record than Clinton’s but not veering so far left that he’s spent the bulk of his career denying that he’s a Democrat, like Sanders”:

Under O’Malley, taxes on the rich went up. So did the gasoline tax. The state curtailed gun rights and expanded same-sex marriage rights. It passed a state DREAM Act and capped college tuition increases. Maryland is also the home to a health care cost control policy known as the all-payer rate setting that is generally liberal wonks’ dream. O’Malley expanded mass transit in his state and helped develop an alternative to GDP to measure real progress in living standards. Even a hideously unpopular O’Malley initiative like the so-called “rain tax” on impermeable surfaces was actually a perfectly reasonable idea.

Not only did O’Malley do a lot of liberal stuff, but the outcomes were worth bragging about. Maryland has the highest median household income of any state, the most college graduates, and under O’Malley it had the nation’s best-scoring K-12 students too. Maryland is a bottom 10 state in terms of per capita carbon dioxide emissions. It’s the kind of record that might have made for a good presidential campaign. If the average American were as a rich, educated, green, and healthy as the average Marylander, we’d have made enormous progress as a society.

Alas, such praise does not a candidacy make. And O’Malley’s turned out to be better in theory than in practice. He never found his footing in the (admittedly few, poorly scheduled) Democratic debates, and, like many an underdog, tried too hard to exploit trivial wedge issues with Clinton and Sanders. “May I offer a different generation’s perspective on this?” O’Malley, who is 54, once asked during a debate, drawing boos from the audience.

Tad Devine, Sanders’s senior campaign strategist, said he thinks O’Malley could fare better in 2020.I think Governor O’Malley is a very serious, formidable candidate,” he told me. “There wasn’t a lot of room in 2016. There was going to be one candidate who was a challenger [to Clinton]. 2020 is a different kind of ball game.” Devine praised O’Malley’s ability to deliver a message, saying, “I don’t discount him in terms of raw political ability.” But Devine added that a candidate needs to fit the times, and O’Malley has to hope his executive experience and governmental know-how is in greater demand in 2020. Part of what hurt O’Malley and Clinton in 2016 was their polish—in an anti-establishment year, they looked and sounded like the establishment.

“Bernie, whether you like him or not, comes across as authentic,” said DeRay Mckesson, the Black Lives Matter leader who ran a failed bid for mayor of Baltimore last year and has watched O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, for years. Mckesson agrees O’Malley was a strong governor, but said his presidential candidacy never recovered from stinging criticism of his “zero tolerance” approach to crime as Baltimore’s mayor—a policy that drew heightened criticism from the black community after Freddie Gray died at the hands of Baltimore Police in 2015. Mckesson praised O’Malley’s criminal justice platform in 2016, but said he never sufficiently addressed the discrepancy with his mayoral tenure. “There are real people that are still impacted by the way he governed. Until he addresses those people and that concern, a policy document isn’t going to be enough,” he said.

“He, like a lot of people, had some issues in the past that, with the passage of time, look very different,” Devine said. “But I don’t think he’s ill at ease in the African American community. I see him as someone who could navigate the politics of race very effectively.” In the meantime, he said, O’Malley should do what he’s doing: testing the waters in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and railing against the president at every opportunity. As with his policy platform, O’Malley was early in denouncing Trump on the campaign trail:

And he has kept it up:

Maybe that rhetoric will look prescient in a few years. O’Malley can say he was clear-eyed about the severity of the threat. Or maybe it’ll seem like the rhetorical desperation of another presidential wannabe.