For a few seconds the other day, it appeared that a Hillary Clinton challenger was actually bestirring himself.
Martin O’Malley – who typically prompts the question, “Who’s Martin O’Malley?” – surfaced on a Sunday show and delivered this soundbite: “The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families.”
Game on, yes? The two-term Maryland governor, who left office in January after plucking the policy chords that make liberal hearts sing, was clearly dissing the notion of a Clinton dynasty. O’Malley hasn’t been coy about his ambitions – he has made the requisite trips to Iowa and New Hampshire – and for a few seconds Sunday, he seemed stoked to take Hillary on. Heck, somebodyhas to take Hillary on, because no candidate deserves to be coronated.
Hillary, given her ties to Wall Street, needs to be challenged from the left; even if she ultimately prevails, the Democratic rank and file deserves to hear a vigorous debate about income inequality and the dominance of special interests. At first, O’Malley seemed to signal his willingness to fight Hillary by positioning himself as the economic populist:
“Look, in order for us to make an economy again where people can work hard and get ahead, we need a president who is on our side, a president who is willing to take on powerful, wealthy, special interests in order restore that sort of American economy where wherever you start on the earnings spectrum, you can get ahead through your hard work. That’s not the economy we have today. Twelve years in a row of wages declining. And it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Nice boilerplate rhetoric. Then his host, George Stephanopolous, asked the key question: “And Hillary Clinton is not the candidate to take on those powerful special interests?”
You can’t tee it up any easier than that. Draw the contrast, dude! Yet this was his response:
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t know where she stands. Will she represent a break with the failed policies of the past? Well, I don’t know.”
Three “I don’t know” evasions. And there you have it – a perfect metaphor for the inert Democratic race.
On paper, O’Malley is a credible challenger from the left; he ended Maryland’s death penalty, supported gay marriage, decriminalized weed, spent heavily on education, hiked the minimum wage. But when he whiffed on the chance to draw a sharp contrast with Hillary on economics, when he declined to link her to “the failed policies of the past” (according to Census data, the gap between rich and poor widened during her husband’s tenure), he underscored a Democratic truism:
Nobody wants to tick off the Clintons.
O’Malley is Exhibit A. He wants to raise his national profile (for a Cabinet position? the veep slot?), and the best route is a nomination bid. But if he runs hard, scuffs Hillary’s crown, and feeds negative ad ammo to the GOP, he’d be lucky to work the White House gate in Hillary’s regime. Indeed, Hillary ally Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan governor, joked about O’Malley’s “crown” remark the other day: “He’s a very nice guy, and I was thinking he might make a nice member of a President Clinton administration, so he better watch it.” (Unless she wasn’t joking.)
Even his “crown” soundbite wasn’t as pugilistic as it seems. He said that the presidency shouldn’t be passed “between two families” – the Bushes as well as the Clintons. He carefully blunted the sting of his remark by making it bipartisan.
Yeah, Hillary is the huge favorite for the nomination; it’s rare that a candidate tops 60 percent in a non-incumbent race. But her overall numbers are a tad soft. According to a new Quinnipiac poll of voters in key states, she has credibility baggage. In Florida, 50 percent don’t trust her; only 41 percent say they do. In Pennsylvania, 49 percent don’t trust her; only 44 percent say they do. Even O’Malley said on Sunday, “History is full of times when the inevitable frontrunner is inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable.”
But you don’t beat a frontrunner by wimping out with multiple recitations of “I don’t know.”
Leave it to the Republicans to tie themselves in knots about gay people, at a time when the American mainstream has already moved on. Kick back with popcorn and behold:
“In Indiana, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis argued against the law the Republican governor had signed. In Ohio, a group called the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry tried to remove antigay language from the party platform. In Arkansas, the Republican governor faced a backlash from business and asked the Republican-led legislature to recall a bill seen as discriminatory to same-sex couples. The Republican party is in the middle of an argument with itself.”
I am reminded of the closing line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Republicans should put it in their party platform:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”