Why Martin O’Malley is running without laying a glove on Hillary

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Martin O’Malley is running against Hillary Clinton by not running against her.

Despite what you may have read over the weekend, the former Maryland governor is being extraordinarily deferential to the woman who will almost certainly be the party’s nominee.

O’Malley made some headlines by going on “This Week” on Sunday, but it’s a sign of how desperate the pundit community is for a Democratic race that his remarks were treated as big news.

“The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families. It is an awesome and sacred trust to be earned,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

Notice that he didn’t mention Hillary’s name. (Or Jeb’s.)

It was about the mildest jab that O’Malley could have thrown and still maintained that he is serious about mounting a presidential campaign.

The telling moment came earlier this month when Hillary’s State Department email furor erupted and O’Malley did everything he could to steer clear of it. At a news conference, he said he was “a little sick of the email drama.”

When a reporter asked for his view of using private email for government business, O’Malley said, “Oh God.” He then ducked by saying “I’m not an expert on federal requirements.”

No wonder the chatter has been that O’Malley is just trying to raise his profile and angle for a vice-presidential nod or a Cabinet post in a second Clinton administration. And he had to quiet that talk. That’s what led to his royalty line on ABC, a comment that will appeal to those weary of Clintons and Bushes but isn’t really a personal slap at Hillary.

If Hillary wasn’t running, O’Malley would be a credible candidate: Eight years as governor of Maryland and seven as mayor of Baltimore. I’ve interviewed him and he gets pumped talking about policy; in fact, on the day he was dodging those Hillary email questions, it was after giving a Brookings speech on “data-driven government.”

His one flashy credential is that he was the model for a character on “The Wire.” But the Democrat is not a great orator. He was panned for his prime-time speech at the 2012 convention by, among others, the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik:

“It was not a very good TV speech, and I suspect it played poorly in many living rooms around the country. It was too big and felt far too artificial and gimmicky for the intimacy of TV…more like something suited to a high school rally.”

Liberals will find much to like in his gubernatorial record: Pushing through same-sex marriage. Passing gun control. Repealing the death penalty and decriminalizing marijuana. He spent heavily on education, and Education Week gave Maryland its top ranking five years in a row for having the best public school system.

But O’Malley is essentially a left-leaning technocrat. As Slate recently noted, “It is hard to envision him stirring liberal hearts and minds the way previous insurgents did. It’s not just that he’s a notoriously leaden public speaker; it’s that, as progressive as his governing record is, he’s oddly reluctant to champion liberal values in the terms many on the left crave.”

And O’Malley’s legacy was tarnished when his lieutenant governor Anthony Brown, the odds-on favorite to succeed him, lost to Republican businessman Larry Hogan in a stunning upset.

As for foreign policy, O’Malley appeared hesitant in the ABC interview when Stephanopoulos asked him to name the biggest national security threat facing America:

“The greatest danger that we face right now on a consistent basis — in terms of man-made threats — is nuclear Iran, and related to that, extremist violence,” he said slowly. “I don’t think you can separate the two. I think they go together.” Then he pivoted to climate change. That’s not going to cut it against a former secretary of state.

O’Malley was also talking about taking on the special interests when he deflected a question on whether Hillary is the right candidate for that mission. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know where she stands. Will she represent a break with the failed policies of the past? I don’t know.”

Another whiff. If he’s not willing to go after Hillary and Wall Street, he’s keeping the kid gloves on.

Obviously, it makes no sense for O’Malley to bring out the heavy artillery against a dominant front-runner this early in the game. But if he’s not willing to be a little more aggressive, he will deepen the sense that he’s not seriously going after the nomination.

Unless the media are so desperate for a race that they will play along with him.

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