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July 05, 2013 11:05 AM Would Martin O’Malley Be a Good Presidential Candidate?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Alec MacGillis had a piece yesterday talking down Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as a presidential candidate. He may be right! But…well, let me give you a taste:

For all his gym-rat, pub-rock credentials, O’Malley is not a very charismatic politician…
In speeches, this lack of dynamism becomes especially noticeable…
When attempting to explain a deeper rationale for his policies, O’Malley tends to offer long lists of metrics, or anodyne pronouncements like, “It’s not about whether we move left or right; it’s about whether we move forward or back.” He has a penchant for quoting, approvingly and at length, the bromides of Tom Friedman. It’s hard to see Democratic primary voters getting fired up about a candidate whose vision for the nation is of an “opportunity-expanding entity.”
But competence alone does not a national campaign make…

Okay, I’ll buy all of that as weaknesses.

But it also sounds a whole lot like Mike Dukakis, who won a nomination pretty comfortably (it also could perhaps fit Mitt Romney). Now, granted, Dukakis got a drubbing from George H.W. Bush, but candidate qualities matter in the nomination stage, not the general election.

The more general question is whether we have any sense at all about what makes a good presidential nomination candidate. I’ve sort of played around with three tiers of viable candidates, mostly based on objective qualifications — the top tier would be, for example, those with previous national success (so those who have been on a national ticket or run strong previous presidential nomination campaigns). Let’s see…viable candidates, I’ve said, are those with conventional qualifications and issue positions within the mainstream of their party. So perhaps what breaks up the second and bottom tiers would be whether they fit comfortably within that definition or not.

 Subjective attributes? Forget it; there’s just no way to have any sense of it.

What I do think is that reporters are apt to overemphasizing surface “campaigning” skills. They aren’t irrelevant! But I’d always rather bet on a candidate who a broad range of important party actors like over a candidate who party actors have no demonstrated interest in despite the ability to give a rousing speech. On the other hand, figuring out what appeals to party actors is tricky indeed — as is figuring out which party actors are the important ones.

And it’s certainly true that, at least on the margins, one of the things that party actors may care about is electoral appeal, measured through performance on the stump and (ultimately) in presidential primaries. So I’m not saying that speechifying and other surface stuff is irrelevant. It’s just easy to overstate its importance.

At any rate: O’Malley does seem to have one important qualification: he’s eager and ready to run, full-out. That, plus basic viability, means I wouldn’t write him off yet. At least not based on his campaign persona.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.