If you live outside Maryland and happened to notice that Martin O’Malley announced in Baltimore that he is running for president as a Democrat, you might well be asking yourself: “Who is Martin O’Malley, and why is he even bothering, since Hillary Clinton has things sewn up?” For starters, O’Malley is the former governor of that state and former mayor of that city. So now you know the “who,” but what about the “why”? What would possess anyone to waste his time and other people’s money to seek a party nomination that is already a done deal? For that matter, we could ask the same things about Bernie Sanders, but quite a bit has been said about him. O’Malley is even further back in the left-of-Hillary pack.
Of course, he’s leading the way-younger-than-Hillary-and-for-that-matter-Bernie pack. Hillary Clinton is soon going to be 68; Sanders is 73, and O’Malley 52. He rarely misses an opportunity to use the word “new,” as in the opposite of “obsolete.” Nevertheless, he’s in the everyone-else-but-Hillary bunch, polling 40 to 50 points under her. So again: Why bother?
Actually, besides the possibility that O’Malley and the others are jockeying to be second banana on a Hillary Clinton ticket, there is another reason to set oneself up as her alternative. In truth, while we all consider the nomination hers to lose, there is a gnawing fear among some in the Democratic Party that Hillary is vulnerable and could come tumbling down from her presumptive perch.
Let’s be honest: A sizable portion of the electorate doesn’t think she is honest. The Quinnipiac poll is just one of several that tallies an “I don’t trust her” response at more than 50 percent. What’s interesting is that these same surveys consistently show high marks for belief in her capabilities. But many can’t help but wonder whether she can sustain a perception of inevitability, given the steady water torture of disclosures about the ways she and her husband have amassed their family fortune. To some, the Clintons’ tactics appear to be smarmy at best, and they certainly provide opportunity for Republicans to exploit her as ethically challenged, to put it mildly.
Her strategy of dodging most questions can go either way: By focusing on the issues she and her handlers want to emphasize, they try to play offense instead of defense. However, it also can leave an impression that she’s hiding something. This is particularly due to a reputation for disingenuousness, which grew out of the way the Clinton camp has always mishandled the scandals that festered during the Bill Clinton presidency. Husband and wife both are lawyers, and it showed. But oftentimes the tactics they and their surrogates used appeared to straddle the line between legalistic and dissembling. They might have been semantically precise, but still raised nagging suspicions among those who weren’t members of the bar — that is to say, most of us.
And here she is today, seeming to play the same games when it comes to the contents of her privately held emails while secretary of state and the ton of financial questions that swirl around the Clinton family foundation. The GOP candidates all show a willingness to slime her, and some Democrats quietly worry that too much of the partisan mud will stick.
It’s easy to understand why the Martin O’Malleys and Bernie Sanderses of this world are putting themselves out there. Just in case, they’re jockeying to be Plan B. They won’t admit it, of course, but they don’t have to, no more than Elizabeth Warren has to abandon a pretense that she’s not interested. In the other bunker, the GOP may be struggling with a cast of characters that’s too big. The Dems have to be prepared if their lineup of one suddenly became none.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.