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The case for Martin O'Malley

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Alex Seitz-Wald's report on Joe Biden's feelings over his not-quite presidential campaign made me profoundly sad. Not for Biden (his family tragedies have been sad enough without the need for any new pathos) but for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the forgotten man of the 2016 campaign:

Asked Wednesday if he regrets the decision, Biden replied, "Sure, I regret it every day, but it was the right decision for my family and for me."

He continued by saying he plans on "staying deeply involved" in the process. "We’ve got two good candidates," he said.

He was referring to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, apparently forgetting O’Malley, who has struggled to escape single digits in polls despite dogged campaigning in Iowa.

The fact is that mainstream Democrats have not two but three solid candidates in the race. And of the three, in conventional terms it's O'Malley who 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.

Martin O'Malley was an excellent governor of Maryland

If you are looking for a recent example of a state where a bunch of Democrats held political power, used that power to pass a bunch of liberal laws, and ended up with their state in a pretty good place, you could do a lot worse than Martin O'Malley's Maryland.

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.

Nobody cares about Martin O'Malley

Given Maryland's proximity to Washington, DC, people in national politics have long been familiar with O'Malley and his presidential aspirations, and he's always been hampered by the (accurate) perception that he's not an enormously charismatic public speaker. Combine that low-wattage personality with the daunting odds facing any challenger to Hillary Clinton, and it was never especially likely that O'Malley would become the nominee.

But then his candidacy got squashed by the Bernie Sanders steamroller. Sanders is not an extraordinary public speaker either, but his willingness to throw caution to the wind and fully embrace the idea of transforming the US into a North American Denmark excited millions of people and left zero market share available for a mainstream Democrat to run to Clinton's left. Between Clinton's establishment juggernaut and Sanders's thrilling crusade, there was just no particular reason for anyone to care about O'Malley.

Nobody read early stories about O'Malley, so fewer stories got written. With less coverage focused on O'Malley, nobody heard anything about him driving low poll numbers that further justified scant coverage. With no polling support and no media coverage, he couldn't garner endorsements or money — all amounting to a downward spiral of doom.

Governors used to be cool

That O'Malley hasn't caught fire is understandable enough, but it seems to be part of a larger 21st-century trend in which presidential politics' historic preference for governors has shifted in favor of senator-centric nomination battles that see Clinton, Sanders, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all rating higher than an O'Malley or a Rick Perry or a Scott Walker.

There's something at least a little troubling about this trend. The presidency is, among other things, a complicated administrative job that seems to have a lot in common with being chief executive of a state. But the nationalization of politics appears to have created a dynamic in which nomination contests are more about who you are than what you've done, in a way that favors deep engagement with the national media ecology over the inevitable fuzziness that comes with running an institution.

Unfortunately, this means O'Malley isn't just losing the race; his experience and his record aren't even considered worth mentioning.

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