Presidential Campaign

Can O’Malley pull a Carter ’76 in 2016?

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Right after he finished his term as governor, one politician many years ago decided to make a very big leap. He had the chutzpah to begin running for president. This little-known former governor, not from a big state, spent most of his time in Iowa and New Hampshire. There, he sought to know everyone of importance who played a role in shaping the political fortunes of aspiring presidential candidates. No crowd was too small, no event too minor. He was everywhere and after a certain amount of time the people of the Hawkeye State and the Granite State got to feel comfortable with him and he developed a following.

When the other, better-known names started to show up, they soon realized that they were too late. This little-known former governor had locked up the key endorsements because he had done the early work of contact and cultivation. The primary reason for his early auspicious electoral success was that this was his only job: running for president.

{mosads}The year was 1976. The candidate was Jimmy Carter. I personally know full well this story. I had the privilege of working at the time for Mo Udall. Mo was called the “gentle giant.” He was a 6-foot-5, proudly liberal congressman from the Cactus State of Arizona. He had one eye and a wickedly playful sense of humor.

Accomplished and hugely popular, this respected legislator had scores of his colleagues from then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) to then-Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) to then-Rep. Herman Badillo (D-N.Y.) campaigning for him. He was by far the class of the field. The other contenders that year were no slouches: the dashing Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps director and 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee; the steady and solid Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), the author of more constitutional amendments than anyone in Senate history; Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.); the irrepressible, maverick populist Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.), who declined a Senate reelection bid to run for president in 1972 as well; and later on, the young Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California and the very smart and gutsy Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho).

But with all this weighty competition, Carter beat them all and was nominated in New York on the first ballot. Carter won because he was a presidential candidate, full-time.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is attempting to do a “Carter” in 2016. Yes, I am fully aware that there is one very enormous name in the game: Hillary Clinton. O’Malley is positioning himself to be there if Clinton decides not to run, or to just pick up the pieces if she fails. O’Malley is 52 years old but looks much younger. He’s lost only one election (for state Senate). It was his first try. (So did, by the way, Presidents Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush.)

But after that, the only setback, he was elected to the Baltimore City Council, twice as mayor of Baltimore and twice as governor of Maryland. When he was governor of Maryland, he signed a formal apology for the state’s role in slavery and he froze in-state tuition at all Maryland public universities. His record is one organized labor would like, as he instituted a “living wage” for state contractors. When it came to housing issues, he extended the foreclosure timetable from 15 days to 150. He’s against capital punishment and for same-sex marriage. He has a passion — or let’s say obsession — for statistics and measuring public policy. His CitiStat program, which he started as mayor, has been replicated nationwide. A lawyer, he was a city prosecutor. He is Catholic and his mother works in Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) Senate office.

O’Malley has a lighter side. He is a talented musician and leads an Irish rock band. O’Malley has the look and air of somebody who has wanted to be president since he was about 5 years old. Same style as Bill Clinton, come to think of it.

There are others in the field: the raging socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the tough ex-Marine and plain-talking former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), the Wall Street-basher Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and incumbent Vice President Biden. But O’Malley at first glance seems to be the freshest face.

He’s good at politics. (Don’t hold the gubernatorial campaign defeat of his lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, against him — his name was not on the ballot.) He has a certain twinkle in the eye, a self-deprecating persona and drive to succeed. Don’t count O’Malley out and most of all, don’t underestimate his chances.

This piece has been updated and revised.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.

Tags 1976 1976 presidential election 2016 2016 presidential election Birch Bayh Frank Church Fred Harris Iowa Jerry Brown Jimmy Carter Martin O'Malley Maryland Mo Udall New Hampshire Sargent Shriver Scoop Jackson
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