2016 Democrats, Debates

Debate Prep: If Martin O’Malley Speaks & Nobody Hears Him, Did He Say Anything?

October 9, 2015

By all rights, Martin O’Malley should have at least a little polling support, if not nationwide, then in Iowa, where he’s spent most of the past several months.

He’s reliably liberal with the “correct” positions on any issue you can possibly think of.  He didn’t vote for the Iraq War like Hillary, isn’t planning on spending huge additional sums of money like Bernie.

O’Malley was born in the 1960s, his main opponents in the 40s.  He spent two reasonably successful terms in the Maryland State House after serving as Baltimore mayor.  This gives him more executive experience than the Famous Three combined.

If he were running in the GOP primary, all this governance stuff might be a problem, but O’Malley trails Joe Biden by double digits.  Biden was in the Senate when O’Malley was learning how to adjust to a full day of elementary school.

Unlike every other mildly plausible Democrat who decided to stay out (Jim Webb, who has plenty of merits but is persona non grata in his own party and Lincoln Chafee who is the Dem Jim Gilmore don’t count), O’Malley thought it was worth challenging the seemingly invincible Hillary.

For his trouble, effort and foresight, the reward is watching Joe Biden circling his white horse, walking around and around the stable, debating if he wants to ride, with influential donors urging him on instead of betting on O’Malley as a backup.

In the meanwhile, he’s feeling the Bern as the activists he hoped to inspire as the not-Hillary have already found a home.  As a young participant in the 1984 Gary Hart campaign, O’Malley had visions of a repeat performance.

Instead, he was undone by superior branding.  While Bernie has a vaguely Orville Reddenbacherish appearance, O’Malley looks like a normal politician or business leader.  He sounds normal.  Not bad, just normal.

In the early 1960s, Volkswagen started selling a ton of Beetles. Hundreds of thousands per year, even with limited amenities and less horsepower than a Chevy with 7 of 8 cylinders deactivated.

At the same time Toyota and Nissan (then selling Datsuns) struggled to sell much of anything.  Their vehicles didn’t perform any worse than the VW, but they looked like shrunken versions of normal cars.

Buyers wanted to make a statement, the same as Prius owners who pick one over the hybrid Camry.  We know which one Bernie is and which one O’Malley is.  The product is at least as good as his competitors but he lacks the branding and packaging.

More than anything, Hillary’s front runner status was based on the quality of her brand.  The past few months have proven it’s strength, not weakness.  Despite a constant flow of bad news stories, a delsutory campaign roll-out and more flip-flops than John Kerry was ever accused of, she’s still ahead almost everywhere.

Now even old Uncle Joe has a quality brand, no longer just the guy you avoid talking to at Thanksgiving Dinner, he’s now a heroic elder statesman, possibly running one last race for his son and to complete the Obama legacy.

This is why O’Malley, running against 2 (likely 3) people easily recognizable by their first names, has bitched so much about the truncated debate schedule.  While Carly Fiorina has already gone from zero to debate hero, Martin (thought I’d try it out) waits.

On Tuesday he gets his big chance.  Best of all, unlike the GOP cattle calls, he takes the stage with four others, a grouping sized more like the Republican undercard debate that first launched Carly.  Even if Biden announces before Monday, he’s not participating.

Though Hillary and Bernie will draw the most attention, the others will get plenty of talk time.  Lincoln Chafee will get as much or more camera time as Donald Trump receives.  It’s a (small) numbers game.

Figure on a minimum of 20 minutes of Martin O’Malley.  What will he do with the most important 1200 seconds of his political life?  Carly wasn’t just a strong debater, she had a distinct tone and message.  She was also the lone female, obviously helping distinguish herself.

O’Malley is the non-geriatric candidate.  Marco Rubio does a good job making a generational argument on the GOP side, and it could work here.  The problem is Bernie has already won over Democratic millennials.  He’s something between an icon, avatar and mascot.

O’Malley is just somebody who vaguely reminds them of their dad or his younger brother.  Only a few years older than Rubio, and more fit than the average pol, he still doesn’t exude youth.  Also doesn’t do the Hart college professor thing.

So there’s a window, but nothing I’ve heard from O’Malley so far gives me any ideas on how he can jump through.  Unlike Republicans who sometimes opt for generic-sounding candidates (Bush 41, Dole, Romney), Democrats usually don’t.

If you ever doubted the adage that politics is all style and no substance, Martin O’Malley stands 96 hours from proving it true.

Good luck Martin.  Hope you have something compelling up your sleeve.

NOTE: A recent Goucher College poll of Maryland Democrats puts O’Malley at 2% in his home state.  As a frame of reference, that’s worse than Lindsey Graham is doing in South Carolina.


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