Saturday, November 21, 2015

Golden Boy Blues

Martin O'Malley's performance in the November 14 Democratic presidential debate won him many fans but few supporters.  Rumors abound that his campaign is on the verge of financial collapse, and he's recently accepted federal campaign matching funds, which Democratic strategist Joe Trippi likened to a cancer patient going on artificial life support to extend his life just a few months longer.  O'Malley says he's fine and he's not giving up, so we'll see what happens.
But this all begs the obvious question: Why has Martin O'Malley, with his charisma, his record, and his relative youth, been stuck in the single digits in all the polls taken in the past six months?  Jonathan Capehart offered a suggestion recently, saying that O'Malley seems too perfect a candidate to be true, comparing him to former North Carolina senator John Edwards.  Edwards, Capehart argued, looked seemed too perfect to be a viable presidential candidate, and that was borne out by the revelation that he fathered a child with a mistress while his wife was battling cancer, which eventually killed her.  Edwards, in other words, was a phony.
I'd go farther than that.  All you have to do is go back to the 1980s and O'Malley's old boss, then-U.S. Senator Gary Hart of Colorado.  O'Malley likes to talk about his work on the Hart campaign and how Hart went from three percent in the polls at the start of the 1984 Democratic presidential campaign to being a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination that year after winning the New Hampshire primary.  (He came in second to establishment candidate Walter Mondale, who lost in November to President Reagan.)  Hart owed his success to his "golden boy" persona - he was polished, he was charismatic, he looked presidential, and he appeared to be much like John F. Kennedy.  And, at 47, he represented youth and vitality.
Hart, though, owed his relative success to the vapid yuppie culture of the time that valued style without paying much attention to substance.  Had the voters - and I, and I'm sorry to say that I didn't see it then - really looked, they would have seen an insubstantial politician with a mediocre record.  They also would have seen a duplicitous, mendacious, underhanded man of blind ambition - a man much like Richard Nixon, who was also known for a conniving, distrustful personality.  Hart, who left the Senate in January 1987, was a leading contender - no, the leading contender - for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, but when he was forced out of the race in May 1987 because of a sex scandal, he revealed a hatred for the press in a withdrawal announcement, which offered no public apology to his supporters and blamed the press for his downfall, that recalled Nixon's famous Last Press Conference of 1962 after Nixon's failed bid for the governorship of California.  Everyone supporting Hart for 1988 - including Martin O'Malley - was duped, though, in fairness, Hart apologized personally to O'Malley for letting him down.  O'Malley was still grateful for the political experience he'd gained.
Anyway, Hart re-entered the campaign in December 1987, but his "golden boy" aura was gone.  He'd gone from hero to zero after his fall, and he was exposed as such a fraud that no one wanted him to run for President - or anything.  Ironically, when he pulled out of the 1988 campaign for the second time in March of that year, he had just received, in the March 8 "Super Tuesday" primaries, three percent of the vote - the same amount of support he received in early 1984 campaign polls.
John Edwards, the golden boy of Democratic politics in the two thousand zeroes,  followed Hart's playbook in 2004.  Acting more Clintonian (as in Bill) than Kennedyesque, Edwards made himself a serious contender that year, ultimately accepting the vice presidential nomination and running with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and positioning himself for a future run.  Kerry's loss opened up an opportunity for Hillary Clinton in 2008 but also for Edwards and Barack Obama.  Edwards looked much more polished and poised than Obama, and something about him must have set off bad vibes among Democratic primary voters; they rejected him before anyone knew about his personal life.  (As I'm sure I said here before, I was glad that at least he was rejected for purely political reasons.)
Now, Martin O'Malley.  The new golden boy.  Young. Charismatic.  Full of ambition and ideas.  A record of achievement.  Of course, Democrats suspect that something's wrong here.  There have been mentions of the feathers O'Malley ruffled as governor of Maryland, along with the highlighting of some flaws in the criminal justice policies he pursued as mayor of Baltimore, and there have even been rumors of extramarital affairs  - which, by the way, were spread by Republicans with no evidence to back them up.  It's incredible, but it's as if Democratic voters have become so suspicious of seemingly perfect candidates that they're looking for any Achilles heel they can find.  And Marty isn't helped by the fact that he has to deal with all of this while running for the Democratic presidential nomination against the most popular and most politically active former First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.  The Democratic rank-and-file voters all seem to have taken one look at O'Malley and decided, "Oh, no.  Not this time.  We're not getting fooled again." 
Give Martin O'Malley a second look, Democrats.  He's the only Democratic presidential candidate with a chance to win next November.  He may have worked for Hart, but he's not Hart.  He's not Edwards, either.  All that glitters may not be gold, but O'Malley has never claimed to be golden, and I never said he was the perfect 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.  I only said that he's the best. :-)  

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