Not since the late Richard M. Nixon selected the late Spiro T. Agnew to be his vice-presidential running mate in 1968 have Marylanders seen one of their governors on the biggest national stage. Martin O’Malley might have left office in January with falling popularity numbers, and you might be hard-pressed to find a Maryland Democrat who plans to vote for him in next spring’s presidential primary, but there he was Tuesday night on CNN, standing between Hillary Clinton and Lincoln Chafee.
It still takes some getting used to, seeing the former Baltimore mayor and city councilman chasing the presidential nomination. In a way, it’s like watching the neighborhood boy grow up to become a major league pitcher -- except in O’Malley’s case, he’s still battling in the minors for a shot at the show. Tuesday night he had his big chance, and the result was a move to Triple-A from Double-A, but that's about it. Clinton was the debate's big winner.
It’s not so much what he says. O’Malley has smart, progressive positions -- albeit many of them of relatively recent vintage -- on an array of issues that should make him appealing to the Democratic Party’s left. He has a list of accomplishments as governor that should make him appealing to center Democrats and to independent voters, and maybe even to the country’s few remaining moderate Republicans turned off by the Trump-Carson-Tea Party troika.
But it’s the way he says things that induces a cringe. I noted the lack of authenticity on the day O’Malley announced his presidential candidacy on Federal Hill in Baltimore; that speech was one of the worst I’ve ever heard, laced with overwrought prose delivered with a fiery passion that seemed contrived. Last night, O’Malley said all the right things -- except for the part about the Syrian president invading his own country -- but his words seemed too practiced, and he almost constantly spoke in a manner that seemed jittery and emotional, even on the verge of tears at times.
His strongest moment came in his closing comments.
Of course, we know this guy too well and, by now, he suffers from that familiarity-breeds-contempt thing in Maryland. The usual suspects despise O’Malley -- the gun-rights zealots and those who think you can maintain a great public school system, relatively stable college tuition, good roads and bridges without raising taxes in the wealthiest state in the country. Others might have turned off when it seemed clear O’Malley was running for president and making decisions that would position him for a run for the White House. Some people are longtime friends and supporters; they don’t understand why any thinking Democrat would have a problem with O’Malley’s generally moderate, thoughtful and honest approach to public service. Whatever it is -- hate him, love him, or just find him kind of blah -- we know O’Malley too well.
So I Tweeted a question Tuesday night while the debate was in progress, asking non-Marylanders what they thought of the guy. Here are some responses:
Sudo Nim: “Thoroughly impressed. Didn't expect that.”
KL: “Not leader-like but a (surprisingly?) strong close.”
Suzanne Corcoran: “He needs less polish and more real. Stop going to the sound bites.”
Tom Hilliard: “Curiously stilted body language, tries to summon anger but can't seem to reach escape velocity.”
James A. Janisse: “Decent ideas wrapped up in an uninspiring package.”
Marty Funkhouser: “No presence whatsoever.”
Kevin Platt: “O'Malley has been, well, interesting. He reminds me of post-2000 Al Gore. A few good ideas, but trying to hard to ‘wow’ me.”
James E. Fallen: “He was better on ‘The Wire.’”