In the cover article for the current May-June issue of the Washington Monthly, Haley Sweetland Edwards became the first national journalist to take a serious look at Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as a potential 2016 president candidate—or alternatively, as a running-mate for Hillary Clinton.
In contrast to Edwards’ upbeat assessment of O’Malley’s upside as a national political figure (and a subsequent piece from National Journal’s Jill Lawrence), TNR’s Alec MacGillis has penned a pretty strong putdown focused mainly on his lack of rhetorical charisma along with his difficulty in weaving the strands of his resume into a coherent rationale for candidacy.
But at Ten Miles Square, Jonathan Bernstein responds calmly to MacGillis by pointing out that the similarly challenged Mike Dukakis did manage to win the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. And he offers the traditional political scientist’s reminder that presidential general elections are typically decided more by structural factors and the relative strength of the two parties than by candidate characteristics.
MacGillis and Bernstein are both friends and fine analysts, and I think they both make valid observations. I do wonder if Alec, who lived in Baltimore when O’Malley was mayor and recently moved back to that city, may harbor some contempt based on unusual familiarity—not just with O’Malley, but with the “data-driven-management” shtick that is the governor’s signature. It might sound a bit fresher to journalists and voters who haven’t much heard it before.
But even more basically, Jonathan is right: Mike Dukakis set a pretty low bar for eloquence in a presidential nominating candidate. Compared to “the Massachusetts Miracle” and “good jobs at good wages,” O’Malley’s message is pretty damn scintillating.
Besides, as Edwards pointed out, the idea of making government measurably accountable for tangible, real-world results should have a certain appeal to Democrats who realize that Americans’ deep-seated antipathy to government is the bedrock on which the competitive position of an increasingly radical Republican Party ultimately rests. Wednesday I noted a word association survey from Pew about the 43d and 44th president that showed W. and Obama getting similar and relatively high association with “incompetent.” So long as Democrats are the party of public-sector activism, it’s a much more dangerous association for the Donkey Party and its presidential candidates.
There’s an old joke that the difference between a Republican and a Democrat is that if your car breaks down on the highway the former will stop by and give you a detailed analysis of how your negligence caused the problem—and then drive off, leaving you there. A Democrat, on the other hand, will raise the hood and roll up his or her sleeves, all eager to help—and then set your engine on fire. It’s unfair, but party stereotypes are hard to shake.
Even if voters don’t find “good manager” a very exciting credential for a candidate, it’s a valuable one, particularly for a Democrat. Maybe O’Malley won’t set your heart on fire, but he won’t set your engine on fire either.
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