Martin O’Malley must say that he believes he can win the 2016 Democratic nomination and the presidency. That’s how it works. The former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland who formally announces his candidacy this weekend cannot get caught suggesting that he is mounting an uphill race against front-runner Hillary Clinton in order to make enough of a name for himself so that Clinton will consider him as a vice presidential running mate—or perhaps as a cabinet member in the next administration.
But could O’Malley really be a contender? He has been dealt a tough hand: His record as governor was called into question when his designated successor got beaten in the Republican-wave election of 2014; his record as mayor has been called into question as Baltimore has become the focal point for a national debate about failed models for policing (and as critics have changed that O’Malley’s “zero-tolerance” policing and related policies “ignited a rift between the citizens and the police”); and his prospects for emerging as the most serious alternative to Clinton are being called into question by the enthusiastic response to the insurgent challenge being mounted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
So what does Martin O’Malley have to offer?
More, perhaps, than those who seek to police the 2016 presidential competition care to acknowledge.
O’Malley’s poll numbers, nationally and in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, are low. But so are those of most candidates—announced and unannounced, Democrats and Republicans—at a point in the process where name recognition counts for more than genuine sentiment.
As the positioning begins, O’Malley has two points in his favor: a familiar scenario and a penchant for speaking from the moral high ground.
Let’s begin with the scenario. In the past 40 years, the Democratic Party has elected three presidents. In each case, the party’s nominee was an unexpected (and it might be argued unlikely) contender who did not begin the race as the front-runner. In two cases, 1976 and 1992, the unexpected contender entered the race not as a Washington insider but as a current or former governor. The classic case, of course, was that of Jimmy Carter, a former governor of a mid-sized state who finished his term and then meticulously worked the grassroots of Iowa and New Hampshire while building an argument for himself that was based not just on policy stances but on a promise to bring a sense of moral duty to the White House.