The Martin O'Malley Scenario

Imagine for a moment that inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s email use develop into a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, newly-released State Department documents uncover that elusive smoking gun on Benghazi. Independents sink her favorability ratings and “untrustworthy” emerges as an even bigger buzzword.

Meanwhile, moderate and non-white voters fail to embrace far-left Bernie Sanders. Nor is the establishment, which has uniformly endorsed Clinton, about to jump ship for a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.

The party is divided and anxious, raising the possibility of depressed Democratic turnout in the fall.

On the other side, Republicans do the improbable. They slog through an ugly primary to nominate someone more widely appealing than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. An inoffensive candidate like Marco Rubio consolidates establishment support, and seems poised to seal the deal. Such a race brings back memories of 1984, a nightmare for the Democrats.

The prospect of a landslide defeat strikes fear in the hearts of the DNC. The establishment knows this election is theirs to lose and isn’t about to throw it away.

Party leaders scramble to draft someone who meets at least the minimum qualifications for the presidency and can appeal to multiple wings of the party. In short, they look for a candidate who may not galvanize voters with talk of a political revolution, but who doesn’t have any fatal flaws either. Who can fill the void?

No, it won’t be Joe Biden.

For all his admirable work as senator and vice president, Biden has never been known as a fiercely independent politician—or a ceiling-breaker—who can fire people up. And his verbal slips could hurt him against a slick debater like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. His folksiness appeals to the working class but not so much the fiery progressive wing. And his conflicted musings about running raise questions about his willingness to endure a nasty contest.

Oh, and there’s one other small problem: He’s not on the ballot in any of the states.

Enter Martin O’Malley, the fallback candidate.

O’Malley is uniquely positioned to step in if his two opponents falter. He holds views more progressive than Clinton’s but not totally off-putting to mainstream liberals. For voters who want to safeguard Barack Obama’s legacy without aggressively expanding federal spending, O’Malley could sell himself as a worthy successor.

First, he would neutralize concerns about Bernie Sanders. O’Malley doesn’t advocate for wholesale change, but his relatively incremental ambitions give him more credibility. He could present realistic plans to pay for his agenda without raising taxes on the middle class, thus avoiding the shaky sort of math coming from the Sanders campaign. And more modest proposals, of course, would stand a better chance of passing a Republican-led Congress.

He could also speak to issues hot among the base right now. As governor of Maryland he passed gun safety legislation, sidestepping that rare ding to Sanders’s liberal bona fides.

And in a party fed up with corporations, O’Malley has taken on the big banks with an intensity implausible for Clinton. (It wouldn’t help perceptions of her trustworthiness to suddenly go full-on Occupy Wall Street). Meanwhile, hardcore Republicans don’t viscerally dislike him the way they do Clinton. He could at least gain a modicum of cross-party appeal.

Critically, O’Malley could assemble the practical elements—delegates and funding—to go all the way. Unlike a typical longshot candidate, desperate for the attention that attacks bring, he’s avoided hitting her too hard in the debates. She could return the favor and cede her delegates to him. And he doesn’t viscerally dislike wealthy donors so much that he eschews their support. When the summer attack ads hit, he could rely on super PACs to fight back.

For good measure, he’s already practiced delivering forceful attacks on Trump, drawing The Donald’s scorn on Twitter. Those one-liners could come in handy this fall.

O’Malley has every reason to stay in the race. As the sole underdog, he occupies a valuable position. If he could gain a few percentage points in the polls, he would remain viable and make a compelling case to stay in the debates. Strong performances would prompt people to give him a second look.

Voters don’t yet know much about O’Malley, a fact he could use to his advantage. As more people tune into the race, he could introduce himself directly, without months of media gossip. There’s reason to believe he would connect. His steady demeanor makes him palatable to a wide range of voters. If he were to run against Donald Trump, Firebrand in Chief, voters might just turn to him as the safer option. The summer fling with the political outsider would give way to the sobriety of election day.

It will be difficult for anyone to inspire people the way Obama did in 2008. But Martin O’Malley wouldn’t have to. He’d simply need to position himself as a reasonable guy who would secure the president’s gains. He could salvage a primary in disarray and give his party a solid chance in the general election.

The media believes O’Malley won’t play much of a role. If this race breaks open, don’t be so sure.

 

 

Written on 1/21 and 1/22

Posted on 1/30