Brett Graham: O'Slim chances

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 - 5:30pm

It’s never fun being the third wheel, as Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley will soon learn. Democratic presidential candidates have been dropping like flies in the month of October, as former senators Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee bowed out within days of one another. Vice President Joe Biden has ruled out the possibility of running and so the field is set: a huge group that is ready for Hillary, a sizable contingent feeling the Bern, and a guitar-playing former governor with relatively low name recognition.

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of attending an event sponsored by the Arab American Institute at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which provided a platform for discussion about the Syrian refugee crisis and culminated with a speech by O’Malley. About halfway through his speech, a familiar iPhone ringtone rang out on one side of the auditorium. As its owner hurried quickly out the door, the governor joked, “I told Hillary never to call me here!”

Laughter filled the room, but all I could think of was how sadly unrealistic the premise was. Why would Clinton pay any attention at all to a candidate who is polling at nearly one-fiftieth her support?

On paper, O’Malley should be a dream candidate for liberal primary voters: As governor, he led a campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. On immigration, he implemented the DREAM Act before it was even passed on the federal level. During his tenure, Maryland repealed the death penalty, passed one of the toughest firearm laws in the nation, raised the minimum wage to $10.10 and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. As he spoke about foreign policy, welcoming the promised 65,000 refugees and the current situation in the Middle East, I — as a liberal — did not disagree with him at any point.

So why can I not get excited about O’Malley? 

Based on the attendance in Dearborn, I know that I’m not alone in this respect. The auditorium was not that large to start with, and there were plenty of empty seats — not exactly the attendance numbers you want if you’re running for president. As his speech progressed, the silences were littered with awkward applause and there never seemed to be a crescendo. Having heard Clinton speak in person, I could feel the electricity and the magnitude of her words, her name and her office. Listening to Sanders call for a political revolution in his thick Brooklyn accent and watching his upper body gesticulate wildly, it’s difficult not to be the least bit enthused at the prospect of an independent senator as president. Yet, with O’Malley, no one seems to be on the other end of that enthusiasm.

His situation looks even less favorable when you consider how many opportunities have come and gone for him to stand out. In the first Democratic debate, his performance was the least memorable, paling in comparison to Chafee’s bungled answer on Glass-Steagall, Webb whining for more speaking time and the now-famous Sanders quote about Clinton’s “damn e-mails.” Reports from the all-important Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa — a huge gathering of Democratic supporters and fundraisers — have O’Malley garnering mild support but lacking the roaring ovations that welcomed the two frontrunners.

What begins now for O’Malley is a long test for his staff and his wallet. There’s an old saying in politics that there are only three tickets out of the Iowa primary. Based on how the Democratic field looks now, one of those belongs to O’Malley — if his fundraising efforts stay steady (or at least afloat, unlike the Perry campaign). Why, though, would he carry on like this?

Many pundits have posited that the goal is to be Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, and not without reason. Another explanation may be that if Clinton’s troubling numbers in terms of trust, warmth and overall favorability or Sanders’ uncompromising defense of democratic socialism are enough to sink them, O’Malley will be the logical life vest of the Democrats’ hopes for 2016.

The true nature of this campaign will be clarified, and potentially decided, next Friday night at the second Democratic debate. Presidential campaigns have had late starts in the past. Bill Clinton did not announce his candidacy until October 1991, and at this point in 1976, Jimmy Carter was one of 13 candidates in a Democratic field without a frontrunner. But this would be about as late a rise into relevance as historical precedent would allow.

One quote stood out during the governor’s speech at Dearborn: “The difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline.”

On behalf of the liberal base, going into 2016, I would like to put forth a deadline to the O’Malley campaign: Nov. 6, the day of the second debate. There needs to be a moment, like Clinton on Arsenio Hall or the introduction of “Yes We Can” in 2008. Voters need to see the X-factor, the liberal qualifications, the demographic that can be reached that separates O’Malley from the pack. Show me why I should look past Bernie and Hillary.

Look for that moment (because I think the O’Malley campaign knows this to be true), or look for the Democratic race to be a one-on-one footrace in Iowa starting in the new year.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.